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Full text of "The Photographer's Eye Composition and Design for Better Digital Photos"









Composition and Design for Better Digital Photos 





Focal Press is an imprint of Elsevier 

Focal Press is an imprint of Elsevier 

30 Corporate Drive, Suite 400, Burlington, MA 01803, USA 

Linacre House, Jordan Hill, Oxford OX2 8DP, UK 

Copyright © 2007 The Ilex Press. All Rights Reserved 

No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval 
system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, 
mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without the 
prior written permission of the publisher. 

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Rights Department in Oxford, UK: phone: (+44) 1865 843830, fax: (+44) 1865 
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request on-line via the Elsevier homepage (http://elsevier.com), by selecting 
"Support & Contact" then "Copyright and Permission" and then "Obtaining 

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data 

A catalog record for this book is available from the Library of Congress. 

ISBN-10: 0-240-80934-3 
ISBN-13: 978-0-240-80934-2 

For information on all Focal Press publications visit our website at 

This book was conceived, designed, and produced by: 
The Ilex Press, Lewes, England 

Publisher: Alastair Campbell 
Creative Director: Peter Bridgewater 
Associate Publisher: Robin Pearson 
Editorial Director: Tom Mugridge 
Editor: Adam Juniper 
Art Director: Julie Weir 
Designer: Simon Goggin 
Design Assistant: Kate Haynes 
Digital post-production: YukakoShibata 

Printed and bound in China 

^forking together io grow 
Ithr jnr% in tiorbipm]; UHimric* 





Frame dynamics 


Frame shape 


Stitching and extending 




Filling the frame 




Dividing the frame 




Frames within frames 






Gestalt perception 




Dynamic tension 


Figure and ground 




Pattern, texture, many 


Perspective and depth 


Visual weight 


Looking and interest 


Content, weak & strong 





A single point 


Several points 


Horizontal lines 


Vertical lines 


Diagonal lines 








Circles and rectangles 

















Chiaroscuro and key 


Color in composition 


Color relationships 


Muted colors 


Black and white 




Conventional or challenging 


Reactive or planned 


Documentary or expressive 


Simple or complex 


Clear or ambiguous 




Style and fashion 




The search for order 




Case study: Japanese monk 
















Photographs together 





188 Index 

192 Acknowledgments & Bibliography 


1 ... how you build a picture, what a picture consists of, 
how shapes are related to each other, how spaces are 
filled, how the whole thing must have a kind of unity!' paul strand 

Philosophical, lyrical, sometimes obscure 
commentaries on how photographs are made 
and what they mean are thick on the ground, 
usually by non-photographers. Not that there 
is anything at all wrong with the perceptive 
outsider's view; indeed, the distance of this kind 
of objectivity brings new, valuable insights. 
Roland Barthes even held his non-understanding 
of photographic processes ("I could not join the 
troupe of those. . .who deal with Photography- 
according-to-the-Photographer") as an advantage 
in investigating the subject ("I resolved to start 
my inquiry with no more than a few photographs, 
the ones I was sure existed for me. Nothing to do 
with a corpus..."). 

This book, however, is intended to be 
different, to explore the actual process of taking 
photographs. I think I'd like to call it an insider's 
view, though that smacks of hubris, because I'm 
drawing on the experience of photographers, 
myself included, at the time of shooting. A 
great deal goes on in the process of making an 
exposure that is not at all obvious to someone 
else seeing the result later. This will never prevent 
art critics and historians from supplying their 
own interpretations, which may be extremely 
interesting but not necessarily have anything to 
do with the circumstances and intentions of the 
photographer. What I will attempt to do here is to 
show how photographers compose their images, 
according to their intentions, moods, and abilities, 
and how the many skills of organizing an image 
in the viewfinder can be improved and shared. 

The important decisions in photography, 
digital or otherwise, are those concerned with 
the image itself: the reasons for taking it, and 
the way it looks. The technology, of course, is 

vital, but the best it can do is to help realize ideas 
and perception. Photographers have always had 
a complex and shifting relationship with their 
equipment. In part there is the fascination with 
the new, with gadgets, with bright, shiny toys. 
At the same time there is, at least among those 
who are reasonably self-confident, a belief that 
their innate ability overrides the mere mechanics 
of cameras. We need the equipment and yet are 
cautious, sometimes even dismissive about it. 

One of the things that is clearly needed for 
successful photography is a proper balance in this 
conflict. Nevertheless, there have been very few 
attempts in publishing to deal comprehensively 
with composition in photography, as opposed to 
the technical issues. This is a rich and demanding 
subject, too often trivialized even when not 
ignored outright. Most people using a camera 
for the first time try to master the controls but 
ignore the ideas. They photograph intuitively, 
liking or disliking what they see without stopping 
to think why, and framing the view in the 
same way. Anyone who does it well is a natural 
photographer. But knowing in advance why some 
compositions or certain combinations of colors 
seem to work better than others, better equips 
any photographer. 

One important reason why intuitive rather 
than informed photography is so common is 
that shooting is such an easy, immediate process. 
Whatever the level of thought and planning 
that goes into a photograph, from none to 
considerable, the image is created in an instant, 
as soon as the shutter release is pressed. This 
means that a picture can always be taken casually 
and without thought, and because it can, it often 
is. Johannes Itten, the great Bauhaus teacher in 

Germany in the 1920s, talking about color in art, 
told his students: "If you, unknowing, are able to 
create masterpieces in color, then unknowledge 
is your way. But if you are unable to create 
masterpieces in color out of your unknowledge, 
then you ought to look for knowledge." This 
applies to art in general, including photography. 
In shooting, you can rely on natural ability or on 
a good knowledge of the principles of design. In 
other graphic arts, design is taught as a matter 
of course. In photography it has received less 
attention than it deserves, and here I set out to 
redress some of this lack. 

A relatively new element is the rapid shift 
from film-based photography to digital, and 
this, at least in my opinion, has the potential 
to revitalize design. Because so much of the 
image workflow between shooting and printing 
is now placed on the computer in the hands of 
the photographer, most of us now spend much 
more time looking at and doing things to images. 
This alone encourages more study, more analysis 
of images and their qualities. Moreover, digital 
post-production, with all its many possible 
adjustments of brightness, contrast, and color, 
restores to photographers the control over the 
final image that was inherent in black-and-white 
film photography but extremely difficult in color. 
This comprehensive control inevitably affects 
composition, and the simple fact that so much 
can be done with an image in post-production 
increases the need to consider the image and its 
possibilities ever more carefully. 




Photographs are created within a 
spatial context, and that context is 
the viewfinder frame. This may be carried 
through unchanged to the final image, 
whether print or on-screen, or it may be 
cropped or extended. In whichever case, 
the borders of the image, nearly always 
a rectangle, exert strong influences on 
what is arranged inside them. 

There is an important distinction, 
nevertheless, between composing 
photographs in the frame as they are 
intended to be, and planning ahead to 
either crop or extend the frame. Most 
35mm film photography has been 
concerned with tight, final composition 
at the time of shooting, and at times this 
has led to a culture of demonstrating the 
fact by showing the rebates (the frame 
edges of the film) in the final print — a 
way of saying "hands off" once the shutter 
has been released. Square-format film, as 
we'll see on pages 13-17, is less amenable 
to comfortable composition, and is often 

used for later cropping. Large format 
film, such as 4X5-inch and 8xio-inch, is 
large enough to allow cropping without 
much loss of resolution in the final image, 
and is also often cropped, particularly in 
commercial work. Now digital photography 
adds its own twist to this, as stitching 
becomes more widely used for panoramas 
and over-sized images (see pages 18-19). 
In traditional, shooting-to-the-final- 
composition photography, the frame plays 
a dynamic role, and arguably more so 
than in painting.The reason is that while 
a painting is built up from nothing, out of 
perception and imagination, the process of 
photography is one of selection from real 
scenes and events. Potential photographs 
exist in their entirety inside the frame every 
time the photographer raises the camera 
and looks through the viewfinder. Indeed, 
in very active, fast shooting, such as street 
photography, the frame is the stage on 
which the image evolves. Moving around a 
scene with the camera to the eye, the frame 

edges assume a considerable importance, as 
objects move into frame and immediately 
interact with them. The last chapter in this 
book, Process, deals with managing this 
constantly changing interaction between 
view and frame edges. It is complex, even 
when dealt with intuitively. If the subject 
is static, like a landscape, it is easy to spend 
enough time studying and evaluating the 
frame. With active subjects, however, there 
is not this period of grace. Decisions about 
composition, whatever they are, must often 
be taken in less time than it takes for them 
to be recognized as such. 

Facility at using this frame depends 
on two things: knowing the principles of 
design, and the experience that comes 
from taking photographs regularly. The 
two combine to form a photographer's 
way of seeing things, a kind of frame 
vision that evaluates scenes from real life 
as potential images. What contributes to 
this frame vision is the subject of the first 
section of this volume. 




The setting for the image is the picture frame. 
In photography, the format of this frame 
is fixed at the time of shooting, although it is 
always possible later to adjust the shape of the 
frame to the picture you have taken. Nevertheless, 
whatever opportunities exist for later changes 
(see pages 58-61), do not underestimate the 
influence of the viewfinder on composition. 
Most cameras offer a view of the world as a 
bright rectangle surrounded by blackness, and 
the presence of the frame is usually strongly felt. 
Even though experience may help you to ignore 
the dimensions of the viewfinder frame in order 
to shoot to a different format, intuition will work 
against this, encouraging you to make a design 
that feels satisfying at the time of shooting. 

The most common picture area is the one 
shown at the top of this page: that of a horizontal 
frame in the proportions 3:2. Professionally, this is 
the most widely used camera format, and holding 
it horizontally is the easiest method. As an empty 
frame it has certain dynamic influences, as the 
diagram shows, although these tend to be felt 
only in very minimal and delicately toned images. 
More often, the dynamics of lines, shapes, and 
colors in the photograph take over completely. 

Depending on the subject and on the 
treatment the photographer chooses, the 
edges of the frame can have a strong or weak 
influence on the image. The examples shown 
here are all ones in which the horizontal and 
vertical borders, and the corners, contribute 
strongly to the design of the photographs. 
They have been used as references for diagonal 
lines within the pictures, and the angles that 
have been created are important features. 

What these photographs demonstrate is that 
the frame can be made to interact strongly with 
the lines of the image, but that this depends on 
the photographer's intention. If you choose to 
shoot more loosely, in a casual snapshot fashion, 
the frame will not seem so important. Compare 
the structural images on these two pages with less 
formally composed picture taken on a Calcutta 
street on page 165. 


Just the existence of a plain rectangular frame 
induces some reaction in the eye. This is one 
schema of how the eye might react (there are, 
of course, many). It begins in the middle, drifts 
up and left, then back down, and right, while at 
some point — either though peripheral vision or 
by flicking — registers the "sharp" corners.The 
dark surround seen through a camera viewfinder 
emphasizes corners and edges. 


One simple device for 
originating an image 
that has prominent lines 
is to align one or two of 
them with the frame. 
In the case of this office 
block, the alignment of 
top edges avoids the 
untidiness of two corner 
areas of sky. Alignment 
like this emphasizes the 
geometry of an image. 




The dynamic movement in this wide-angle 
photograph comes from the interplay of diagonals 
with the rectangular frame. Although the diagonal 
lines have an independent movement and direction, 
it is the reference standard of the frame edges that 
allows them to create tension in this picture. 


Breaking the normal rules, a panoramic frame is 
used here to exaggerate an abstract treatment 
of the back of an adobe church in New Mexico. 
A conventional approach would have been to show 
the top of this building and the lower buttressing 
down to the ground. The subject here, however, is 
not a literal version of the church, but the geometry 
and textures of the unusual planes. Squeezing the 
image at the top and bottom removes some of 
the realism, and compels the eye to consider the 
structure out of context. 


1 1 


The shape of the viewfinder frame (and LCD 
screen) has a huge influence on the form that 
the image takes. Despite the ease of cropping it 
later, there exists a powerful intuitive pressure 
at the time of shooting to compose right up to 
the edges of the frame. Indeed, it takes years of 
experience to ignore those parts of an image that 
are not being used, and some photographers 
never get used to this. 

Most photography is composed to a few 
rigidly defined formats (aspect ratios), unlike 
in other graphic arts. Until digital photography, 
by far the most common format was 3:2 — that 
of the standard 35mm camera, measuring 
36x24mm — but now that the physical width 
of film is no longer a constraint, the majority 
of low- and middle-end cameras have adopted 
the less elongated, more "natural" 4:3 format that 
fits more comfortably on printing papers and 
monitor displays. The question of which aspect 
ratios are perceived as the most comfortable 
is a study in its own right, but in principle, 
there seems to be a tendency toward longer 
horizontally (the increasing popularity of wide- 
screen and letterbox formats for television), but 
less elongated for vertically composed images. 


This is the classic 35mm frame, which has been 
transferred seamlessly to digital SLRs, creating 
in the process a sort of class distinction between 
professional and serious amateur photographers 
on the one hand, and everyone else on the other. 

The reason for these proportions is a matter 
of historical accident; there are no compelling 
aesthetic reasons why it should be so. Indeed, 
more "natural" proportions would be less 
elongated, as evidenced by the bulk of the ways in 
which images are displayed — painting canvases, 
computer monitors, photographic printing paper, 
book and magazine formats, and so on. Part of 
the historical reason was that 35mm film was 
long considered too small for good enlargements, 
and the elongated shape gave more area. 
Nevertheless, its popularity demonstrates how 
easily our sense of intuitive composition adapts. 

Overwhelmingly, this format is shot 
horizontally, and there are three reasons for this. 
The first is pure ergonomics. It is difficult to 
design a camera used at eye level so that it is just as 
easy to photograph vertically as horizontally, and 
few manufacturers have even bothered. SLRs are 
made to be used for horizontal pictures. Turning 
them on their side is just not as comfortable, and 
most photographers tend to avoid it. The second 
reason is more fundamental. Our binocular 
vision means that we see horizontally. There is no 
frame as such, as human vision involves paying 
attention to local detail and scanning a scene 
rapidly, rather than taking in a sharp overall view 
all at once. Our natural view of the world is in 
the form of a vague-edged, horizontal oval, and 
a standard horizontal film frame is a reasonable 
approximation. The final reason is that 3:2 
proportions are often perceptually too elongated 
to work comfortably in portrait composition. 

The net result is that a horizontal frame 
is natural and unremarkable. It influences the 
composition of an image, but not in an insistent, 
outstanding way. It conforms to the horizon, 
and so to most overall landscapes and general 
views. The horizontal component to the frame 
encourages a horizontal arrangement of elements, 
naturally enough. It is marginally more natural to 
place an image lower in the frame than higher — 
this tends to enhance the sensation of stability — 
but in any particular photograph there are likely 
to be many other influences. Placing a subject 
or horizon high in the frame produces a slight 
downward-looking, head-lowered sensation, 
which can have mildly negative associations. 

For naturally vertical subjects, however, the 
elongation of a 2:3 frame is an advantage, and the 
human figure, standing, is the most commonly 
found vertical subject — a fortunate coincidence, 
as in most other respects the 2:3 proportions are 
rarely completely satisfactory. 


Our natural view of the world is binocular and 
horizontal, so a horizontal picture format seems 
entirely normal. The edges of vision appear vague 
because our eyes focus sharply at only a small angle, 
and the surrounding image is progressively indistinct. 
Note, however, that this is not conventional blurring, 
as edges can be detected with peripheral vision. 
The limits of the view, here shown in gray, are also 
normally not perceived, just ignored. 


This is the width-to-height ratio of an image or display. Here, 
for consistency, we assume the width is longer, unless referring 
to a specific vertical image. So, a standard SLR frame is 3:2, 
but composed vertically is 2:3. 


The correspondence of the horizon line and the format makes a 
horizontal frame natural for most long scenic views.This is the first 
sight for visitors of Blenheim Palace, Oxford, and its landscaped grounds, 
christened at the time it was built "the finest view in all of England." 
The length is necessary for this controlled scene, but depth is not. 

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Its extra length when compared to the 4:3 frame of consumer cameras 
and most monitor displays makes this aspect ratio interesting to work 
in. There is always a sense of horizontality. In this photograph of the Lord 
Mayor's Show in the City of London, the basic structure depends on a 
balance between the soldier in the left foreground and the ornate coach 
behind, with a clear left-to-right vector and a distinct feeling of depth. 






Traditionally, and once again with digital 
photography and on-screen presentations, these 
"fatter" frames are the most "natural" image 
formats. In other words, they are the least insistent 
and most accommodating to the eye. In the days 
when there was a rich variety of large-format film, 
formats included 5x4-inch, 10x8-inch, 14x11- 
inch, and 8 1 /2X6 1 /2-inch. There is now a reduced 
choice, but the proportions all work in much the 
same way, and equally for rollfilm formats, digital 
backs, and lower-end digital cameras. 

In terms of composition, the frame dynamics 
impose less on the image, because there is less of 
a dominant direction than with 3:2. At the same 
time, that there is a distinction between height 
and width is important in helping the eye settle 
into the view, with the understanding that the 
view is horizontal or vertical. Compare this with 
the difficulties of a square format, which often 
suffers from lack of direction. As noted opposite, 
these proportions are very comfortable for most 
vertically composed images. 


In these photographs of a man 
sleeping on the Khyber railway, 
the natural balance occurs when 
his head is placed slightly low in 
the vertical shot, and to one side 
in the horizontal. 


Seen vertically from the air, the 
multi-hued Grand Prismatic 
Spring in Yellowstone National 
Park naturally fits a horizontal 
frame. Nevertheless, a vertical 
was also needed for possible full- 
page use. Switching to vertical 
meant placing the subject lower 
in the frame and finding another 
element (another spring) to fill 
the void above. 







Although this format is not very well suited to 
vertical subjects like standing figures and tall 
buildings, inertia often encourages photographers 
to make it work as well as possible. One technique is 
to off-center the subject like this, so as to persuade 
the eye to move horizontally, across the frame. 


4:3, 5:4, and similar "fatter" frame shapes tend to 
dominate composition less than 3:2 or panoramas. 
There is usually more flexibility at the time of 
shooting. Indeed, this horizontal of Angkor Wat 
in Cambodia was eventually cropped in at the 
sides and used for a book cover. 


As explained, there is a slight natural resistance 
to photographing vertically, even though print 
media actually favor this orientation because of 
the normal format of magazines and books (for 
this reason, professional photographers usually 
make an effort to shoot vertically as well as 
horizontally because of client demands). The 
naturalness of horizontal vision reinforces the 
eye's desire to scan from side to side, and a 
corresponding reluctance to scan up and down. 

With a non-elongated subject, most people 
tend to place it below the center of the frame, 


The eye is naturally reluctant to scan up and 
down, and the bottom edge of a picture frame 
represents a base; thus gravity affects vertical 
composition. Subjects tend to be placed below 
the center, the more so with tall formats, as in 
this shot of a Bangkok river boat (the direction 
of movement also suggested a low placement). 

and the more elongated the format, the lower, 
proportionately, the object goes. The natural 
tendency with a dominant single subject is to push 
the focus of attention downward, and demonstrates 
an inclination to avoid the upper part of a vertical 
frame. One explanation for this is that, as with 
horizontal frames, there is an assumption that the 
bottom of the picture is a base: a level surface on 
which other things can rest. This works unremarkably 
with 3:4 proportions, but the 2:3 proportions of an 
SLR frame are a little extreme, and this often leaves 
the upper part of the picture under-used. 


The standing human figure is one of several 
classes of subject which suits a vertical format. 
Others include tall buildings, trees, many 
plants, bottles, and drinking glasses, doorways 
and archwavs. 



Patterns and other formless 
arrangements fit well into a 
square format because the frame 
has no directional emphasis. 
Under these circumstances, it 
does not intrude on the image. 


The equal dimensions of a square frame make 
it susceptible to symmetrical division, as these 
examples show. Vertical and horizontal lines 
enhance the square's stability; diagonals are 
more dynamic. 

1. With its strongly implied center and equal sides, a 
square format takes very easily to a radial composition. 
Radial and other completely symmetrical subjects are 
particularly well-suited to the perfect equilibrium of 
the square. Their precision is complementary but exact 
alignment is essential. 

2. There is a precise relationship between the square 
and circle. Fitting one concentrically in the other 
emphasizes the sensation of focus and concentration 
on the center. 

3. A natural subdivision is by vertical and horizontal 
lines, although the effect is extremely static. 

4. A more dynamic, but still centered, subdivision 
is by means of diagonals and diamonds. 



While all other photographic frames are 
rectangular, with varying proportions, one is 
fixed: the square. A few film cameras have this 
unusual format — unusual in that very few images 
lend themselves well to square composition. In 
general, it is the most difficult format to work 
with, and most design strategies for a square 
frame are concerned with escaping the tyranny 
of its perfect equilibrium. 

We ought to look a little more closely at 
why most subjects are ill-suited to a square 
arrangement. In part, this has to do with the axis 
of the subject. Few shapes are so compact that 

they have no alignment. Most things are longer 
in one direction than in another, and it is natural 
to align the main axis of an image with the longer 
sides of a rectangular picture frame. Hence, most 
broad landscape views are generally handled as 
horizontal pictures, and most standing figures 
as verticals. 

The square, however, has absolutely no bias. 
Its sides are in perfect 1:1 proportions, and its 
influence is a very precise and stable division 
of space. Here lies the second reason for the 
unsympathetic nature of square proportions: they 
impose a formal rigidity on the image. It is hard 
to escape the feeling of geometry when working 

with a square frame, and the symmetry of the 
sides and corners keeps reminding the eye of 
the center. 

Occasionally a precise symmetrical image is 
interesting; it makes a change from the normally 
imprecise design of most photographs. However, 
a few such images quickly become a surfeit. It 
is fairly normal for photographers who work 
consistently with a square-format camera to 
imagine a vertical or horizontal direction to the 
picture, and to crop the resulting image later. 
Practically, this means composing fairly loosely in 
the viewfinder, to allow a certain amount of free 
space either at the sides or at the top and bottom. 




Digital stitching software has evolved into 
a widely used tool for creating images 
that are larger and wider. These are actually 
two separate functions. Shooting a scene with 
a longer focal length in overlapping frames is 
one technique for achieving higher resolution 
and so larger printed images — an equivalent 
of large-format photography. From the point 
of view of this book, however, the interest is in 
changing the shape of the final image. This tends 
to be panoramic, as long horizontal images have 
an enduring appeal for reasons we'll go into 
shortly, but there is also complete freedom, as the 
examples here show. What is often overlooked 
is the effect this stitching has on the process 
of shooting, because it demands anticipation 
of how the final image will look. There is no 
preview at the time, and this is a situation new 
to photography — that of having to imagine what 
the final image and frame shape will be. It gives 
stitched, extended images an unpredictability 
which can be refreshing. 

Panoramas have a special place in photography. 
Even though proportions that exceed 2:1 seem to 
be extreme, for landscapes and other scenic views, 
they are actually very satisfying. To understand 
why, we have to look again at the way human 
vision works. We see by scanning, not by taking in 
a scene in a single, frozen instant. The eye's focus 
of attention roams around the view, usually very 
quickly, and the brain builds up the information. 
All of the standard photographic formats — and 
most painting formats, for that matter — are 
areas that can be absorbed in one rapid scanning 
sequence. The normal process of looking at the 
picture is to take in as much as possible in one 
prolonged glance, and then to return to details that 
seem interesting. A panorama, however, allows the 
eye to consider only a part of the image at a time, 
but this is by no means a disadvantage, because it 
replicates the way we look at any real scene. Apart 
from adding an element of realism to the picture, 
this slows down the viewing process, and, in 
theory at least, prolongs the interest of exploring 

the image. All of this depends, however, on the 
photograph being reproduced fairly large and 
viewed from sufficiently close. 

This virtue of the panorama — to draw the 
viewer in and present some of the image only to 
the peripheral vision — is regularly exploited in 
the cinema, where an elongated screen is normal. 
Special projection systems, such as Cinerama 
and IMAX, are premised on the realistic effect 
of wrapping the image around the viewer. Still 
panoramic images have a similar effect. 

The frame can also be extended in post- 
production in other ways, by stretching (using 
warping, distortion, and other geometric software 
tools, and even by cloning). Certain images lend 
themselves to being extended in one or more 
directions — for instance, extending the sky 
upwards, or widening the background in a studio 
still-life. Magazine layouts often suggest this, 
although there are ethical considerations with this 
kind of manipulation, in that the final image is 
not necessarily as it was seen. 




A sequence of five overlapping frames was shot for 
this view of white chalk cliffs near Dover, England. 
Normally, stitched panoramas are shot with the 
camera carefully levelled so that the horizon will be 
straight. Pointing the camera down prevents this 
because of the strong curved distortion, but here 
it was put to deliberate use. The arc-shaped frame 
was cut at the end of the process. 


In this stitched panoramic 
view, much of the sky and 
the foreground are removed, 
leaving the eye free to follow 
the rhythm of the horizon 
line and the interaction of 
cloud and mountain. Treated 
like this, a large number of 
natural landscapes fit very 
comfortably into stretched 
proportions. Eight overlapping 
horizontal images were shot. 


For a large-scale image and 
extra-wide coverage, a 
perspective-control shift lens 
was rotated, frame by frame, 
at full shift. Stitching these 
13 images is, in a sense, the 
digital equivalent of large- 
format photography. Normally, 
this redented shape would be 
cropped, but here it has been 
left, not only to show the 
process but to be part of the 
form of the image. 




Cropping is an editing skill that was highly 
developed during the days of black-and- 
white photography, lapsed somewhat in the color 
slide era, and is now revived fully as an integral 
part of preparing the final digital image. Even 
when the framing as shot is judged to be fine, 
technical adjustments such as lens distortion 
correction will demand it. 

Cropping is one way of reworking the image 
well after it has been shot; an option for deferring 
design decisions, and even of exploring new ways 
of organizing an image. Unlike stitching, however, 
it reduces the size of the image, so demands a 
high resolution to begin with. In traditional 
enlarger printing, the enlarging easel itself acts 
as a cropping guide, but it may be easier to 
experiment first with L-shaped cropping masks 
on film (on a light box) or a contact sheet. With 
digital images (or scanned film), the process 
is infinitely easier and clearer, using software 
cropping tools. 

It is important not to think of cropping as 
a design panacea or as an excuse for not being 
decisive at the time of shooting. The danger of 
having the opportunity to alter and manipulate 
a frame after it is shot is that it can lull you into 
imagining that you can perform a significant 
proportion of photography on the computer. 
Cropping introduces an interruption in the 
process of making a photograph, and most 
images benefit from continuity of vision. 


For this Thai landscape, the several viable alternatives 
are shown together, superimposed on a black-and- 
white version of the image. The abandoned temple 
itself must remain the dominant element in the 
image — there is nothing else — and the choices are 
in the placement of the horizon line and in whether 
or not to include the clump of bamboo on the left. 
Placing the horizon low (purple and green frames) 
gives a more spacious, open feeling and emphasizes 
what is happening in the sky (sunrise and some 
threatening clouds). Raising the horizon line (red 
frame) draws attention to the rice in the field. A 
vertical crop (blue) also needs a significant area of 
rice to keep it anchored. 




In the case of this misty landscape on the Isle of 
Skye, let's look at the kind of decisions involved. 
The original framing has clearly been chosen to 
make something of the rippled clouds at the tor. 
of the frame, and the horizon has been placed 
correspondingly low.This in itself reduces our 
options a little. 

1. Perhaps the first, obvious crop is to ignore the 
high clouds and concentrate instead on the mist- 
shrouded gualities of the rocky pillars. Now, once we 
have dispensed with the clouds, there are no limits 
to how far down we can crop the top of the frame. In 
this instance, I have chosen to reverse the proportion 
of land to sky, and to take the opportunity to make a 
panorama. This is a viable alternative to the original 
picture, although it really needs to be considerably 
enlarged for the best possible effect. 

2. Next, what if we try to crop in and still retain 
moderate horizontal proportions? Unfortunately, 
it seems that if there is to be any significant area of 
sky, it should go right to the existing top of the frame, 
simply in order to provide some tone and weight in 
that part of the picture. Cropping in at the sides does 
very little to enhance the importance of the pillars. 
The only reasonable option will be to crop the bottom, 
and go for a horizon line that almost coincides with 
the base of the picture. 

3. Is a vertical crop possible? 
Given that an upright image has 
even more need of the tonal 
weight of the clouds, the best 
that we can do is to crop in at the 
sides. The choices are informed 
by selecting the most interesting 
shapes on the horizon. 


In order to be able to talk about the different 
graphic elements in composition, and to 
look at the way they interact, the first thing we 
must do is to isolate them, choosing the most 
basic situations for composing pictures. A little 
caution is needed here, because in practice there 
is usually a multitude of possibilities, and a single, 
isolated subject is something of a special case. The 
examples here may seem a little obvious, but at 
this stage we need clear, uncluttered examples. 

The most basic of all photographic situations 
is one single, obvious subject in front of the 
camera, but even this presents two options. We 
have an immediate choice: whether to close 
right in so that it fills up the picture frame, or 
to pull back so that we can see something of its 
surroundings. What would influence the choice? 
One consideration is the information content of 
the picture. Obviously, the larger the subject is 
in the photograph, the more detail of it can be 
shown. If it is something unusual and interesting, 
this may be paramount; if very familiar, perhaps 
not. For example, if a wildlife photographer has 
tracked down a rare animal, we would reasonably 
expect to see as much of it as possible. 

Another consideration is the relationship 
between the subject and its setting. Are the 
surroundings important, either to the content of 
the shot or to its design? In the studio, subjects 
are often set against neutral backgrounds; then 
the setting has nothing to tell the viewer, and 
its only value is for composition. Outside the 
studio, however, settings nearly always have some 
relevance. They can show scale (a climber on a 
rock- face) or something about the activity of 
the subject. 

A third factor is the subjective relationship 
that the photographer wants to create between 
the viewer and the subject. If presence is 
important, and the subject needs to be imposing, 
then taking the viewer right up to it by filling 
the frame is a reasonable option. There are 
some mechanical matters involved, such as the 
ultimate size of the picture when displayed, the 
focal length of lens, and the scale of the subject 


to begin with. Nevertheless, a big subject filling 
the frame of a big picture usually acquires force 
and impact. Moreover, as the examples here show, 
there can also be a satisfying precision in just 
matching subject to frame — particularly if the 
image has to be composed rapidly. 

The shape of the subject in relation to the 
format of the frame clearly has an effect. In the 
sequence of the Hong Kong ferry on the right, 
the main picture shows a very satisfactory fit: 
the boat from this angle just reaches the edges all 
round. In the majority of single- subject pictures, 
however, the focus of attention does not fill the 
frame. The shape may not coincide with the 
format of the picture (cropping is always possible, 
but it is not necessarily elegant, and it may not 
suit the intended display method). Another 
possible risk with running the edges of the subject 
right up to the borders of the picture is that the 
eye may feel uncomfortable concentrating on 
points falling very near the edges of the picture. 
It often needs — or at least benefits from — a little 
free area around a subject to be able to move 
without feeling constricted. 


Two southern Sudanese boys using plastic filters to 
drink from a pond. Just fitting with little to spare, like 
this, usually means quick work with either feet or a 
zoom lens. In this case,there is room to spare at the 
top and bottom, but this usefully shows the uniform 
covering of duckweed, apparently limitless. 


Digital cameras offer two possibilities for active 
composition-looking through the viewfinder in the 
traditional way, or the newer method of looking at 
the two-dimensional LCD screen. The argument 
for the latter is that it eases the translation from 
a 3D scene to a 2D image. For active framing, this 
applies only to cameras without moving prism 
mechanisms (not SLRs). Even when using the 
viewfinder, the LCD offers a very useful review, not 
just of technical matters, but composition also. 


1. The success of this shot depends almost entirely on perfect timing as the ferry 
approaches the camera. Although it may not be immediately obvious, much of the 
design appeal of this photograph lies in the almost exact fit of the boat's shape to the 
35mm frame. A little earlier, with more water showing around the edges, would have 
been more ordinary; a fraction later would have looked like a mistake. The ferry in 
this picture feels large; it has presence. 

3. A different kind of context shot. More informative than attractive in its design, 
this shows us less about the ferry but more about where it is and what it does. 

2. Pulling back gives a more typical subject-in-its-setting treatment. Successful 
because of the crisp lighting but more ordinary than the previous photograph, the 
setting in this case can be taken as read; we know the ferry must be on water, and 
because there is nothing unusual about it (heavy waves or interesting color), it 
adds little to the picture. 

4. Over-filling the frame takes us into the structural details of a subject. Here, the 
lifebelts inform us that this is a boat, but the definition of the subject has altered: 
this picture is now concerned as much with the people as with the ferry. 




In any construction involving one, obvious 
subject, other than filling the frame with it, 
there is always the decision of where to place it, 
remaining sensitive to the proportions of the 
space surrounding it. As soon as you allow free 
space around the subject, its position becomes an 
issue. It has to be placed, consciously, somewhere 
within the frame. Logically, it might seem that 
the natural position is right in the middle with 
equal space around, and indeed, there are many 
occasions when this holds true. If there are no 
other elements in the picture, why not? 

One compelling reason why not is that it is 
very predictable — and, if repeated, boring. We are 
faced with a conflicting choice. On the one hand, 
there is a desire to do something interesting with 
the design and escape the bull's-eye method of 
framing a subject. On the other hand, placing the 
subject anywhere but in a natural position needs a 
reason. If you place a subject right in the corner of 
an otherwise empty frame, you need a justification, 
or the design becomes simply perverse. Eccentric 
composition can work extremely well, but as we 
will see later in the book, its success depends on 
there being some purpose behind it. 

The importance of placement increases as 
the subject becomes smaller in the frame. In 
the photograph of the sentry on page 15, we are 
not really conscious that the figure is actually in 
any position in the frame. It is, in fact, centered 
but with not so much space around it as to be 
obvious. With the photograph of the water- 
bound hamlet here, we are made very aware of 
its position in the frame because it is obviously 
isolated and surrounded by ocean. Some off- 
centeredness is usually desirable simply in order 
to set up a relationship between the subject and 
its background. A position dead center is so 
stable as to have no dynamic tension at all. If 
slightly away from the middle, the subject tends 
to appear to be more in context. There are also 
considerations of harmony and balance, which 
we'll come to in the next chapter. 

In practice, other elements do creep into 
most images, and even a slight secondary point 

of interest is usually enough to influence the 
placement of the subject. In the case of the stilted 
houses, we aware of the position of the sun above 
and left; there is an inferred relationship here, one 
that makes it natural to offset the houses slightly 
in the opposite direction. 

Vectors can also influence an off-center 
position. For instance, if the subject is obviously 
in motion, and its direction is plain, then the 
natural tendency is to have it entering the frame 
rather than leaving it. I emphasize the word 
natural, however, because there may always be 
special reasons for doing things differently — and 
different usually gets more attention. In a more 
general sense, subjects that "face" in one direction 

(not necessarily literally) also often fit more 
comfortably so that they are offset, so that 
some of the direction they "see" is in the frame. 

As a rule of thumb, when the setting 
is significant — that is, when it can actually 
contribute to the idea behind the picture — then 
it is worth considering this kind of composition, 
in which the subject occupies only a small area. In 
the case of the houses in the sea, the whole point 
of the picture is that people live in such unusual 
circumstances: surrounded by water. Closing in 
would miss the point. Unfortunately, moving 
further back would only reduce the size of the 
houses so much that they would be indecipherable, 
although it would show still more ocean. 


The purpose of this aerial view of stilted houses 
built in the middle of the Sulu Sea in the Philippines 
is to draw attention to their unusual and isolated 
location. Off-centering the subject brings some life to 
the design, and encourages the eye to move from the 
houses towards the upper left corner of the frame. 




This is an exercise in placement.The overall view 
shows that the old bench is next to a pond and 
surrounded by green, although the foreground 
is more continuous than the background, where 
patches of sky can be seen. For this last reason, 
closing in meant keeping the bench near the top 
of the frame. 

1. The first attempt was a tight fit, and the gaps 
marked with parallel blue lines are where the 
framing decision has to be made. 

2. Pulling back offers two choices. In this, the 
diagonals of the bench are considered dominant, 

so the placement is offset against them, to the right. 

3. Alternatively, the bench, waiting for someone 

to sit, can be thought of as "facing" right and down. 
To counter this, it is placed on the left. 

4. Now a horizontal attempt. Here it definitely 
makes sense to consider its right-facing aspect, 
so it is placed at left, facing in. 

5. Pulling back reveals the edge of the pond. 
This is now a second subject added to the image, 
and the framing attempts to balance the two. 


Any image, of any kind, automatically creates 
a division of the picture frame. Something 
like a prominent horizon line does this very 
obviously, but even a small object against a bland 
background (a point, in other words) makes an 
implied division. Look at any of the pictures in 
this book which comprise a single small subject — 
shifting the position of the subject changes the 
areas into which the frame is divided. 

There are, naturally, an infinite number of 
possible divisions, but the most interesting ones 
are those that bear a definable relationship to 
each other. Division is essentially a matter of 
proportion, and this has preoccupied artists 
in different periods of history. During the 
Renaissance, in particular, considerable attention 
was given to dividing the picture frame by 
geometry. This has interesting implications 
for photography, for while a painter creates 
the structure of a picture from nothing, a 
photographer usually has little such opportunity, 
so much less reason to worry about exact 
proportions. Nevertheless, different proportions 
evoke certain responses in the viewer, whether 
they were calculated exactly or not. 

During the Renaissance, a number of painters 
realized that proportions of division based on 
simple numbers (like 1:1, 2:1, or 3:2) produced an 

essentially static division. By contrast, a dynamic 
division could be made by constructing more 
interesting ratios. The Golden Section, which 
was known to the Greeks, is the best known 
"harmonious" division. As outlined below, the 
Golden Section is based on pure geometry, and 
photographers almost never have either the need 
or the opportunity to construct it. Its importance 
lies in the fact that all the areas are integrally 
related; the ratio of the small section to the large 
one is the same as that of the large section to the 
complete frame. They are tied together, hence the 
idea that they give a sense of harmony. 

The logic of this may not seem completely 
obvious at first, but it underlies more than just 
the subdivision of a picture frame. The argument 
is that there are objective physical principles 
that underlie harmony. In this case, they are 
geometric, and while we may not be aware of 
them in operation, they still produce a predictable 
effect. The subdivision of a standard 3:2 frame 
according to the Golden Section is shown 
opposite. Precision is not of major importance, 
as the photographs show. 

The Golden Section is not the only way of 
making a harmonious division. It is not even the 
only method in which the ratios are integrally 
related. Another basis, also from the Renaissance, 

is the Fibonacci series — a sequence of numbers 
in which each is the sum of the previous two: 
1,2, 3, 5, 8, 13, and so on. In yet another method, 
the frame is subdivided according to the ratio of 
its own sides. There is, indeed, a massive variety 
of subdivisions that obey some internal principle, 
and they all have the potential to make workable 
and interesting images. 

This is all very well for a painter or illustrator, 
but how can photography make sensible use of 
it? Certainly, no -one is going to use a calculator 
to plan the division of a photograph. Intuitive 
composition is the only practical approach for 
the majority of photographs. The most useful 
approach to dividing a frame into areas is to 
prime your eye by becoming familiar with the 
nuances of harmony in different proportions. 
If you know them well, intuitive composition 
will naturally become more finely tuned. As 
photographers, we may be able to ignore the 
geometry, but we can not ignore the fact that 
these proportions are fundamentally satisfying. 
Notice also that, by dividing the frame in both 
directions, an intersection is produced, and this 
makes a generally satisfying location for a point, 
or any other focus of attention. Compare this 
with the off-center placement of small subjects 
on pages 66-69. 


Two parts are said to be in the golden ratio if the 
whole (the sum of the two parts) is to the larger 
part as the larger part is to the smaller part. The 
calculation for this is: 

a + b 


where a is the larger part and b is the smaller part. 

This ratio, denoted cp (phi), is an irrational number 
with the value 

cp = 1(1 +V5) = 1.618033989 

In photography, this is analysis after the event; no 
photographer ever calculates this, but familiarity 
with these proportions makes it easy to reproduce 
them, more or less, in a composition instinctively. 


The frame on the left is in the ratio 1.618, or 144:89, 
which argues for its being aesthetically pleasing 
and balanced. For more on ratios and the principle 
of balance, see pages 40-43. For comparison, on the 
right is the standard 35mm (now digital SLR) frame 
in the ratio 3:2.They are by no means dissimilar. 




In principle, any subdivision of the frame that 
is integrated internally produces a sense of 
harmonious balance. The first diagram below 
demonstrates a subdivision according to the 
Fibonacci series (see page 26). The second shows 
a geometric base using the frame's own sides. 
Most of the useful subdivisions are rectilinear, but 
diagonals can be used to create triangular spaces. 
In the photograph to the right, the composition 
was of course intuitive, but the changing alignments 
very clearly suggested a rectilinear division. As the 
sequence shows, the initial scene was of just the 
horizon and distant boats, hence the experiments 
up and down. The arrival of the fisherman in a red 
rowing boat changed the dynamics, and the instant 
when both he and the boat were aligned vertically 
in the frame made the shot. A moment later, this 
all fell apart. 








Probably the most common photographic 
situation in which the frame must be divided 
cleanly and precisely is the one that includes the 
horizon line. In landscapes of the type shown 
on these pages it becomes the dominant graphic 
element, the more so if there are no outstanding 
points of interest in the scene. 

Plainly, if the line of the horizon is the only 
significant graphic element, placing it becomes 
a matter of some importance, and the simple 
case is when it is actually horizontal (no hilly 
contours) . There is a natural tendency to place 
the line lower in the frame than higher, related to 
the association of the bottom of the picture frame 
with a base. We explore this later, on pages 40-43 
(Balance), but a low placement for most things 
in principle gives a greater sense of stability. 
This apart, the question of the exact position 
remains open. One method is to use the linear 
relationships described on the preceding pages. 

Another is to balance the tones or colors (see 
pages 118-121 for the principles of combining 
colors according to their relative brightness). 
Yet another method is to divide the frame 
according to what you see as the intrinsic 
importance of the ground and sky. For instance, 
the foreground may be uninteresting, distracting, 
or in some other way unwanted, while the skyscape 
is dynamic, and this might argue for a very low 
horizon, almost to the edge of the frame. There are 
examples of this here and elsewhere in this book 
(cropping, as discussed on pages 20-21, is another 
opportunity to explore these considerations). In 
the shot of Lake Inle, the form of the clouds is 
definitely worth making part of the image, but 
the clouds are too delicate in tone simply to use a 
wider angle of lens and include more of the dark 
foreground. They can register properly only if the 
proportion of the ground is severely reduced so 
that it does not overwhelm the picture. 

If, on the other hand, there is some distinct 
feature of interest in the foreground, this will 
encourage a higher position for the horizon. 
Indeed, if the sky has no graphic value and the 
foreground has plenty of interest, it may make 
more sense to reverse whatever subdivision you 
choose, and place the horizon much closer to 
the top of the frame. 

There is, needless to say, no ideal position 
even for any one particular scene and angle 
of view. Given this, and the kind of decisions 
just mentioned, there may be good reasons 
for experimenting with different positions. 
There is little point, however, in simply starting 
low and moving progressively higher without 
considering the influences and reasons. As the 
pair of photographs shot in Monument Valley 
illustrates, different horizon positions can have 
equal validity, depending on the circumstances 
of the picture, and also on personal taste. 


In this view of Mono Lake, 
California, the horizon is 
uninterrupted and the sky 
empty of clouds, which 
simplifies the factors affecting 
the placement. This position 
approximates to the Golden 
Section (see page 26). 




The atmospheric sky and mountains in this telephoto shot 
of Lake Inle in Burma justify a very low placement, and avoid 
what would be an out-of-focus foreground. 


The Totem Pole and Yei-Bichei Rocks in Monument 
Valley, seen from the foot of a sand dune. The texture 
of the dune seen in raking sunlight and the cloud 
pattern in the sky competed in interest, suggesting 
two eq ua I ly va I id a Iternative f ra m i ngs. 


Awide-angleviewof Death Valley sand dunes places 
the interest in the details of the ripples. The setting 
sun gives sufficient interest to the horizon without 
needing more sky in the composition. 




One of the most predictably successful of all 
photographic design constructions is an 
internal frame. As with any established design 
formula, it contains real risks of overuse, and has 
the makings of a cliche, but these dangers are only 
evidence of the fact that it does work. It simply 
needs a little more care and imagination when it 
is being applied. 

The appeal of frames within frames is partly to 
do with composition, but at a deeper level it relates 
to perception. Frames like those shown here and 
on the next few pages enhance the dimensionality 
of a photograph by emphasizing that the viewer 
is looking through from one plane to another. As 
we'll see at other points in this book, one of the 
recurrent issues in photography is what happens 
in converting a fully three-dimensional scene 
into a two-dimensional picture. It is more central 
to photography than to painting or illustration 
because of photography's essentially realistic roots. 
Frames within the picture have the effect of pulling 
the viewer through; in other words, they are a 

kind of window. There is a relationship between 
the frame of the photograph and an initial step 
in which the viewer's attention is drawn inward 
(the corners are particularly important in this). 
Thereafter, there is an implied momentum forward 
through the frame. Walker Evans, for example, 
often made deliberate use of this device. As his 
biographer, Belinda Rathbone, writes, "That his 
photographs saw through windows and porches 
and around corners gave them a new dimension 
and power and even an aura of revelation." 

Another part of the appeal is that by drawing a 
boundary around the principal image, an internal 
frame is evidence of organization. A measure of 
control has been imposed on the scene. Limits 
have been set, and the image held back from 
flowing over the edges. Some feelings of stability 
and even rigidity enter into this, and this type 
of photograph lacks the casual, freewheeling 
associations that you can see in, for example, classic 
journalistic or reportage photography. As a result, 
frames within frames appeal to a certain aspect 

of our personalities. It is a fundamental part of 
human nature to want to impose control on the 
environment, and this has an immediate corollary 
in placing a structure on images. It feels satisfying 
to see that the elements of a picture have been 
defined and placed under a kind of control. 

On a purely graphic level, frames focus the 
attention of the viewer because they establish 
a diminishing direction from the outer picture 
frame. The internal frame draws the eye in by 
one step, particularly if it is similar in shape to 
the picture format. This momentum is then 
easily continued further into the picture. Another 
important design opportunity to note is the 
shape relationship between the two frames. As 
we saw when we looked at the dynamics of the 
basic frame, the angles and shapes that are set up 
between the boundary of the picture and lines 
inside the image are important. This is especially 
so with a continuous edge inside the picture. The 
graphic relationship between the two frames is 
strongest when the gap between them is narrow. 


From a low and exact camera position (one with little 
latitude for movement), the natural frame formed 
by the tree in the foreground helps to strengthen a 
composition in which the eye is led under the branch 
and up the lawn toward the building. 


This pair of related photographs, taken a short 
distance apart, of the Empire State Building and 
the Manhattan Bridge in New York, shows how 
the frame-within-frame technique can alter the 
dynamics of the image. In the first photograph, 
the viewpoint was chosen so that the image of 
the building butts right up to the edge of the 
bridge's tower.The principal dynamic here is the 
correspondence of shapes, encouraging the eye 
to move between the two, as shown in the first 
diagram. From a viewpoint slightly to the right, the 
building can be made to fit neatly into the bridge 
tower's central arch. Now the eye is directed inward 
toward the building, in three steps, as shown by 
the arrows in the second diagram. Once again, the 
internal frame structures the images more formally. 





Much of the success of using internal frames is 
due to finding the right correspondence of shape, 
followed by a combination of camera position 
and focal length to make the match. In this case, 
the undulation of the heavy silhouetted branch 
in the foreground creates a rotating vector to 
enliven the image. 





Composition is essentially organization, 
the ordering of all the possible graphic 
elements inside the frame. This is basic 
design, and photography has the same 
fundamental needs in this respect as any 
other graphic art. The danger is the same 
also — that detailing a technique on paper 
can lead to it being read as a dogmatic 
set of rules. It is especially important to 
treat basic design as a form of inquiry, an 
attitude of mind, and a summary of the 
resources available. It is not a quick fix. 

There is a useful analogy with language. 
Using the frame, which we have just looked 
at, as the context or setting, design basics 
form the grammar, the graphic elements 
in the next chapter are the vocabulary, 
and the process, in the last chapter, is the 
syntax — the way in which the forms in 
photography are put together, ultimately 
defining its nature. 

The principles of design in photography 
are, to an extent, different from those 
in painting and illustration. For the 
most part there is no particular value 

in making these comparisons, but it is 
important to understand that there are 
objective principles of design; that is, they 
exist independently of individual taste. 
They explain why certain photographs 
create the impressions they do, and 
why particular ways of organizing the 
image have predictable effects. 

The two most fundamental principles 
are contrast and balance. Contrast stresses 
the differences between graphic elements 
in a picture, whether it is contrast of tone, 
color, form, or whatever. Two contrasting 
elements reinforce each other. Balance 
is intimately related to contrast; it is the 
active relationship between opposing 
elements. If the balance (between blocks 
of color, for example) is resolved, there 
is a sense of equilibrium in the image. 
If unresolved, the image seems out of 
balance, and a visual tension remains. 

Both extremes, and all varieties of 
balance in between, have their uses in 
photography. The eye seeks harmony, 
although this does not make it a rule of 

composition. Denying the eye perfect 
balance can make a more interesting 
image, and help to provoke the response 
the photographer wants. Effective 
composition is not committed to producing 
gentle images in familiar proportions. It is 
usually visually satisfying, but ultimately 
good design is functional. It begins with 
the photographer having a clear idea of 
the potential for a picture, and of what 
the effect of the image should be. 

Finally, design has to work within 
limits: what its audience already knows 
about photographs. This audience may 
know nothing of design techniques, 
but it has an understanding of the 
conventions, based on familiarity from 
seeing countless images. Sharp focus, 
for instance, is understood to mark 
the points of interest and attention. 
Certain ways of composing an image 
are considered normal, so that there 
are assumed standards; the photograph 
can meet these or challenge them, 
according to the photographer's intention. 




The most fundamental overhaul of design 
theory in the 20th century took place in 
Germany in the 1920s and its focus was the 
Bauhaus. Founded in 1919 in Dessau, this school 
of art, design, and architecture was a major 
influence because of its experimental, questioning 
approach to the principles of design. Johannes 
Itten ran the Basic Course at the Bauhaus. His 
theory of composition was rooted in one simple 
concept: contrasts. Contrast between light and 
dark (chiaroscuro), between shapes, colors, and 
even sensations, was the basis for composing an 
image. One of the first exercises that Itten set the 
Bauhaus students was to discover and illustrate 
the different possibilities of contrast. These 
included, among many others, large/small, long/ 
short, smooth/rough, transparent/opaque, and so 
on. These were intended as art exercises, but they 
translate very comfortably into photography. 

Itten's intention was "to awaken a vital feeling 
for the subject through a personal observation," 
and his exercise was a vehicle for plunging in 
and exploring the nature of design. Here is an 
adaptation of his exercises for photography. 

The project is in two parts. The first is rather 
easier — producing pairs of photographs that 
contrast with each other. The easiest way to do this 
is to make a selection from pictures you've already 
taken, choosing those that best show a certain 
contrast. More demanding but more valuable is 
to go out and look for images that illustrate a pre- 
planned type of contrast — executing shots to order. 

The second part of the project is to combine 
the two poles of the contrast in one photograph, 
an exercise that calls for a bit more imagination. 
There are no restrictions to the kind of contrast, 
and it can be to do with form (bright/dark, 
blurred/sharp) or with any aspect of content. For 

example, it could be contrast in a concept, such as 
continuous/intermittent, or something non-visual, 
like loud/quiet. The list in the box below is from 
Itten's original Bauhaus exercise. 

A passionate educator, Itten wanted his 
students to approach these contrasts from three 
directions; "they had to experience them with their 
senses, objectivize them intellectually, and realize 
them synthetically." That is, each student had first 
to try to get a feeling for each contrast without 
immediately thinking of it as an image, then list the 
ways of putting this sensation across, and finally 
make a picture. For example, for "much/little," one 
first impression might be of a large group of things 
with one of them standing out because it is in 
some way different. On the other hand, it could be 
treated as a group of things with an identical object 
standing a little apart, and so isolated. These are 
just two approaches out of several alternatives. 


The very fine texture of this marsh grass near Mono 
Lake, California, is made to appear even more delicate 
by choosing a viewpoint against the sun. 


The dull lighting, drab urban setting, and foreshortening effect of a 
telephoto lens all contribute to the spiky, aggressive quality of these 
architectural roof pyramids. 


Point /line 

Area /line 


Area / body 


Line/ body 

High /low 

Smooth /rough 


Hard /soft 

Broad /narrow 

Still /moving 


Light /heavy 




Continuous / intermittent 

Much /little 

Liquid /solid 

Straight /curved 

Sweet /sour 

Pointed /blunt 

Strong /weak 

Horizontal /vertical 

Loud /soft 


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To maximize the impression of quantity, this shot 
of drying fish was composed right to the edges of 
the rack, but not beyond, so that the fish appear 
to extend beyond the frame edges. 


To emphasize the isolation of this abandoned boat, a 
wide-angle lens increases the perspective, separating 
it from the distant shore. The composition helps by 
eliminating from the view other extraneous points 
of attention. 


The low contrast in this view of a Shaker village 
in Maine is due entirely to the quality of lighting: 
early morning fog. 


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The highest-contrast lighting effect is produced by a high sun in 
clear weather and unpolluted air. The strong relief of these rock 
arches creates deep, unrelieved shadow. 






Water and other liquids have no intrinsic shape, 
so one common method of representing them is 
as droplets orfalling streams against a non-liquid 
background. Here, however, the wave patterns of 
sunlight convey the effect in a swimming pool, 
making it possible to shoot nothing but water. 


Hard lighting and rough, dry texture give the 
impression of rocky solidity. A telephoto lens 
compresses the view of these canyons into a 
wall-like structure, filling the frame. 




A flamingo's pink feather 
fallen onto cracked, baked 
mud in Mexico's Rio lagartos 
reserve in Yucatan. 




Combining the two contrasts shown opposite in one, 
this still-life shows a steel superconducting device 
in its cooling bath of liquid nitrogen, bubbling in 
the higher temperature of the studio. 

v 31 


Cherry blossom week in Japan 
is a holiday occasion for viewing 
the delicate pink flowers. Here, 
however, they are seen against 
garish hoardings in Tokyo.The 
contrast is even more poignant 
in Japanese, as the characters 
read "Really Cheap!" 




Gestalt psychology was founded in Austria 
and Germany in the early 20th century, and 
while some of its ideas (such as that objects seen 
form similarly shaped traces in the brain) have 
long been abandoned, it has had an important 
revival in its approach to visual recognition. 

Modern Gestalt theory takes a holistic 
approach to perception, on the basic principle 
that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, 
and that in viewing an entire scene or image, the 
mind takes a sudden leap from recognizing the 
individual elements to understanding the scene in 
its entirety. These two concepts — appreciating the 
greater meaning of the entire image and grasping 
it suddenly and intuitively — may at first seem at 
odds with what is known about how we look at 
images. (The principle that we build up a picture 
from a series of rapid eye movements to points of 
interest is explored more thoroughly on pages 
80-81.) However, in reality, Gestalt theory has 
adapted to experimental research, and, despite 
its sometimes vague assertions, offers some 
valid explanations about the complex process 
of perception. Its importance for photography 
lies mainly in its laws of organization, which 
underpin most of the principles of composing 
images, particularly in this and the next chapter. 

The word "Gestalt" has no perfect English 
translation, but refers to the way in which 
something has been gestellt, that is, "placed" 
or "put together," with obvious relevance 
to composition. As a way of understanding 
perception, it offers an alternative to the 
atomistic, iterative way in which computers 
and digital imaging work, step -by- step, and 
stresses the value of insight. Another principle 
from Gestalt is "optimization," favoring clarity 
and simplicity. Allied to this is the concept of 
pragnanz (precision), which states that when 
understanding takes place as a whole ("grasping 
the image"), it involves minimal effort. 

The Gestalt laws of organization, listed in the 
box, go a long way toward explaining the ways 
in which graphic elements in photographs, such 
as potential lines, points, shapes, and vectors, are 

"completed" in viewers' minds and understood 
to animate and give balance to an image. One of 
the most important and easy-to-grasp laws is that 
of Closure, usually illustrated by the well-known 
Kanizsa triangle (illustrated opposite). We can 
see this principle time and again in photography, 
where certain parts of a composition suggest a 
shape, and this perceived shape then helps to 
give structure to the image. In other words, an 
implied shape tends to strengthen a composition. 
It helps the viewer make sense of it. Triangles 
are among the most potent of "closure-induced" 
shapes in photography, but the example 
illustrated opposite is the somewhat more 
unusual one of a double circle. 

As we'll see in more detail when we come to 
the process of shooting (in Chapter 6), creating 
and reading a photograph heavily involves the 
principle of making sense of a scene or an image, 
of taking the visual input and attempting to fit 
it to some hypothesis that explains the way it 
looks. Gestalt theory introduces the idea of 
regrouping and restructuring the visual elements 
so that they make sense as an entire image — also 
known as the "phi-phenomenon." However, 
whereas Gestalt theory is used in instructional 
design — for example, to eliminate confusion 
and speed up recognition (diagrams, keyboards, 
plans, and so on) — in photography it can play 
an equally valuable opposite role. 

As we'll see when we come to Chapter 6, 
Intent, there are many advantages in slowing 
down the way people view a photograph, so as 
to deliver a surprise or to involve them more 
deeply in the image (Gombrich's "beholder's 
share", page 140). For example, the principle of 
Emergence (see box) is valuable in explaining 
how, in a sudden moment, the mind comprehends 
something in a photograph that was visually 
"hidden" (pages 144-145, Delay, go into this 
in more detail). Normally, in presenting 
information, making the viewer's mind work 
harder is not considered a good thing, but in 
photography and other arts it becomes part of 
the reward for viewing. 


The most well-known demonstration of closure 
is this, designed by Italian psychologist Gaetano 
Kanisza, in which the only shapes are three circles 
with wedges cut out of them, yet the eye sees 
a triangle. 






1. Law of Proximity. Visual elements are grouped 
in the mind according to how close they are 
to each other. 

2. Law of Similarity. Elements that are similar 
in some way, by form or content, tend to be 

3. Law of Closure. Elements roughly arranged 
together are seen to complete an outline 
shape.The mind seeks completeness. 

4. Law of Simplicity. The mind tends towards 
visual explanations that are simple; simple 
lines, curves, and shapes are preferred, as is 
symmetry and balance. 

5. Law of Common Fate. Grouped elements 
are assumed to move together and behave 
as one. 

6. Law of Good Continuation. Similar to the 
above, this states that the mind tends to 
continue shapes and lines beyond their 
ending points. 

7. Law of Segregation. In order for a figure 
to be perceived, it must stand out from its 
background. Figure-ground images (see 
page 48) exploit the uncertainty of 
deciding which is the figure and which 

is the background, for creative interest. 

Grouping plays a large part in Gestalt thinking, 
and this is known as "chunking." 

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1. Emergence. Parts of an image that do not 
contain sufficient information to explain 
them suddenly pop out as a result of looking 
long enough and finally grasping the sense. 

2. Reification.The mind fills in a shape or area 
due to inadequate visual input.This includes 
closure (above). 

3. Mu Instability. In some instances, when there 
are insufficient depth clues, objects can be 
seen to invert spontaneously. This has been 
exploited more in art (M. C. Escher, Salvador 
Dali)than in photography. 

4. 1 nvaria nee. Objects can be recognized 
regardless of orientation, rotation, aspect, 
scale, or other factors. 


The Gestalt Law of Closure governs many of the 
compositional techniques that help give structure 
to images. In this photograph of ceremonial guards 
at the annual Garebeg ceremony at the palace of 
Yogyakarta, Java, the eye sees two approximate 
circles left and right, and this helps order the image. 
Yet these are entirely notional. In [1], applying 
a median filter to simplify the view, the shapes 
stand out more. In [2], the actual curved sections 
are marked, and can be seen to be very far from 
completed circles, yet as highlighted in [3], the 
implied circles work to concentrate the attention 
on the uniformed soldiers inside them. This is 
essentially the mechanism demonstrated on 
pages 84-93 (which cover the theme of shapes). 



At the heart of composition lies the concept 
of balance. Balance is the resolution of 
tension, opposing forces that are matched to 
provide equilibrium and a sense of harmony. It is 
a fundamental principle of visual perception that 
the eye seeks to balance one force with another. 
Balance is harmony, resolution, a condition that 
intuitively seems aesthetically pleasing. In this 
context, balance can refer to any of the graphic 
elements in a picture (in Chapter 3 we will review 
each of these in turn). 

If we consider two strong points in a picture, 
for example, the center of the frame becomes 
a reference against which we see their position. 
If one diagonal line in another image creates a 
strong sense of movement in one direction, the 
eye is aware of the need for an opposite sense of 
movement. In color relationships, successive and 
simultaneous contrasts demonstrate that the eye 
will seek to provide its own complementary hues. 

When talking about the balance of forces 
in a picture, the usual analogies tend to be ones 
drawn from the physical world: gravity, levers, 
weights, and fulcrums. These are quite reasonable 

analogies to use, because the eye and mind have 
a real, objective response to balance that works in 
a very similar way to the laws of mechanics. We 
can develop the physical analogies more literally 
by thinking of an image as a surface balanced at 
one point, rather like a weighing scale. If we add 
anything to one side of the image — that is, off- 
center — it becomes unbalanced, and we feel the 
need to correct this. It does not matter whether 
we are talking about masses of tone, color, an 
arrangement of points, or whatever. The aim is 
to find the visual "center of gravity." 

Considered in this way, there are two distinct 
kinds of balance. One is symmetrical or static; 
the other is dynamic. In symmetrical balance, the 
arrangement of forces is centered — everything 
falls equally away from the middle of the picture. 
We can create this by placing the subject of a 
photograph right in the middle of the frame. In 
our weighing- scale analogy, it sits right over the 
fulcrum, the point of balance. Another way of 
achieving the same static balance is to place two 
equal weights on either side of the center, at equal 
distances. Adding a dimension to this, several 

graphic elements equally arranged around the 
center have the same effect. 

The second kind of visual balance opposes 
weights and forces that are unequal, and in doing 
so enlivens the image. On the weighing scale, a 
large object can be balanced by a small one, as 
long as the latter is placed far enough away from 
the fulcrum. Similarly, a small graphic element 
can successfully oppose a dominant one, as long 
as it is placed toward the edge of the frame. 
Mutual opposition is the mechanism by which 
most balance is achieved. It is, of course, a type 
of contrast (see Contrast, on pages 34-37). 

These are the ground rules of visual balance, 
but they need to be treated with some caution. 
All we have done so far is to describe the way 
the balance works in simple circumstances. In 
many pictures, a variety of elements interact, 
and the question of balance can only be resolved 
intuitively, according to what feels right. The 
weighing scale analogy is fine as far as it goes — 
to explain the fundamentals — but I would 
certainly not recommend actually using it as 
an aid to composition. 



Apart from this, a more crucial consideration 
is whether or not balance is even desirable. 
Certainly, the eye and brain need equilibrium, 
but providing it is not necessarily the job of 
art or photography. Georges Seurat, the neo- 
Impressionist painter, claimed that "Art is 
harmony," but as Itten pointed out, he was 
mistaking a means of art for its end. If we 
accepted a definition of good photography as 
the creation of images that produce a calm, 
satisfying sensation, the results would be very 
dull indeed. An expressive picture is by no means 
always harmonious, as you can see time and again 
throughout this book. We will keep returning 
to this issue, and it underlines many design 
decisions, not just in an obvious way — where to 
place the center of interest, for example — but in 
the sense of how much tension or harmony to 
create. Ultimately, the choice is a personal one, 
and not determined by the view or the subject. 

In composing the image, the poles are 
symmetry and eccentricity. Symmetry is a 
special, perfect case of balance, not necessarily 
satisfying, and very rigid. In the natural run of 

views that a photographer is likely to come across, 
it is not particularly common. You would have 
to specialize in a group of things that embody 
symmetrical principles, such as architecture or 
seashells, to make much use of it. For this reason, 
it can be appealing if used occasionally. On the 
subject of a mirrored composition in Sequoia 
National Park, the landscape photographer Galen 
Rowell wrote, "When I photographed Big Bird 


Using the analogy of a weighing scale, think of a 
picture as balanced at its center. In this close-up of 
the eyes on the Buddhist stupa at Swayambunath 
in Nepal, the simple arrangement is symmetrical. 
The arrangement is balanced exactly over the 
fulcrum; the forces a re evenly balanced. However, 
if we remove one element, done here digitally for 
the exercise, the visual center of gravity is shifted 
to the left, and the balance is upset. The natural 
tendency would be to shift the view to the left. 


The belief that there are naturally ideal proportions goes back to the Pythagoreans, whose thought was 
dominated by mathematics, yet was also mystical. A core belief was that reality was numerically ordered. 
In arguing the creation of the universe, Stobaeus wrote: "Things that were alike and of the same kind had 
no need of harmony, but those that were unlike and not of the same kind and of unegual order-it was 
necessary for such things to have been locked together by harmony, if they are to be held together in 
an ordered universe." In music, for example, a scale that produces harmonic (pleasing) sounds must 
have pitches that are in a consistent ratio. The idea of natural harmony can be extended to other fields, 
such as visual proportions. The Greek Aristides (530-468 BC) wrote about painting that, "we shall find 
that it does nothing without the help of numbers and proportions: it is through numbers that it hunts for 
the proportionate measures of bodies and mixtures of colors, and from these it gives the pictures their 
beauty." Nevertheless, at many times in the history of art there has been conflict between those who 
sought inspiration from mathematical, harmonic order and those who found it dry, sterile, and stifling to 
the imagination-the painter William Blake, for example. (See also pages 118-121.) 




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Dynamic equilibrium opposes two unequal subjects 
or areas. Just as a small weight can balance a larger 
mass by being placed further from the fulcrum, large 
and small elements in an image can be balanced 
by placing them carefully in the frame. Note here 
that the content of the upper right area — Chinese 
characters — increases its visual importance (see 
pages 98-99 for more on visual weight). 

Lake with a fine reflective surface on the water, 
I intuitively broke traditional rules of composition 
and split my image 50-50 to strengthen the patterns 
and emphasize the similarity between the two 
halves of my image." To succeed, symmetrical 
composition must be absolutely precise. Few 
images look sloppier than an almost symmetrical 
view that did not quite make it. 

We ought now to consider how tension 
actually works in an unbalanced composition. 
The mechanics are considerably more subtle 
than the balancing- scale analogy can show. 
While the eye and brain search for balance, it 
would be wrong to assume that it is satisfying 
to have it handed on a plate. Interest in any 
image is in direct proportion to the amount 
of work the viewer has to do, and too perfect 
a balance leaves less for the eye to work at. 
Hence, dynamic balance tends to be more 
interesting than static balance. Not only this, 
but in the absence of equilibrium, the eye tries 

to produce it independently. In color theory, 
this is the process involved in successive and 
simultaneous contrast (see pages 118-121). 

This can be seen in action in any eccentrically 
composed picture. In the photograph of a 
farmer in a rice field on page 69, according to 
the weighing-scale analogy the equilibrium 
is completely upset, yet the image is not at all 
uncomfortable in appearance. What happens is 
that the eye and brain want to find something 
closer to the center to balance the figure in the 
top-right corner, and so keep coming back to the 
lower-left center of the frame. Of course, the only 
thing there is the mass of rice, so that the setting in 
fact gains extra attention. The green stalks of rice 
would be less dominant if the figure were centrally 
placed. As it is, it would be difficult to say whether 
the photograph is of a worker in a rice field or 
of a rice field with, incidentally, a figure working 
in it. This process of trying to compensate for an 
obvious asymmetry in an image is what creates 

visual tension, and it can be very useful indeed 
in making a picture more dynamic. It can help 
draw attention to an area of a scene that would 
normally be too bland to be noticed. 

A second factor involved in eccentrically 
composed images is that of logic. The more 
extreme the asymmetry, the more the viewer 
expects a reason for it. Theoretically, at least, 
someone looking at such an image will be 
more prepared to examine it carefully for the 
justification. Be warned, however, that eccentric 
composition can as easily be seen as contrived. 

Finally, all considerations of balance must 
take into account the sheer graphic complexity 
of many images. In order to study the design 
of photographs, we are doing our best in this 
book to isolate each of the graphic elements we 
look at. Many of the examples, such as the rice 
field picture, are deliberately uncomplicated. In 
reality, most photographs contain several layers 
of graphic effect. 




Certain classes of subject are naturally symmetrical 
around one axis, as with this Greek fishing boat 
seen from the front. Architecture also often falls 
into this category, as do head-on views of many 
living things (such as a human face). Precision 
is particularly important with a symmetrical 
composition, because the smallest misalignment 
will stand out immediately and may simply look 
like a failure. 


There is a natural tendency to apply our 
experience of gravity to images and image 
frames. As we'll see in Chapter 3, verticals 
express a gravitational pull downwards, while 
horizontal bases provide a supporting flatness. 
This is probably why the placement of a dominant 
element in a frame tends to be lower, particularly 
with a vertical frame (see page 26). As the 
painter and teacher Maurice De Sausmarez 
wrote about a vertical above a horizontal: 
"The two together produce a deeply satisfying 
resolved feeling, perhaps because together they 
symbolize the human experience of absolute 
balance, of standing erect on level ground." 




We have already seen how certain of the 
basic graphic elements have more energy 
than others: diagonals, for instance. Some design 
constructions are also more dynamic; rhythm 
creates momentum and activity, and eccentric 
placement of objects induces tension as the eye 
attempts to create its own balance. However, 
rather than think of an image as balanced or 
unbalanced, we can consider it in terms of its 
dynamic tension. This is essentially making use 
of the energy inherent in various structures, and 
using it to keep the eye alert and moving outward 
from the center of the picture. It is the opposite of 
the static character of formal compositions. 

Some caution is necessary, simply because 
introducing dynamic tension into a picture seems 
such an easy and immediate way of attracting 
attention. Just as the use of rich, vibrant colors 
is instantly effective in an individual photograph 
but can become mannered if used constantly, so 
this kind of activation can also become wearing 
after a while. As with any design technique that 

is strong and obvious when first seen, it tends to 
lack staying power. Its effect is usually spent very 
quickly, and the eye moves on to the next image. 

The techniques for achieving dynamic 
tension are, however, fairly straightforward, as 
the examples here show. While not trying to 
reduce it to a formula, the ideal combination 
is a variety of diagonals in different directions, 
opposed lines, and any structural device 
that leads the eye outward, preferably in 
competing directions. This argues against, for 
example, using circular enclosing structures, 
and suggests that good use can be made of a 
powerful standby, eye-lines (see pages 82-83). 


Eye-lines and the direction in which things appear 
to face are responsible here for the diverging lines 
of view. The man faces left, and the line of his stance 
contributes to this.The hopper full of molten metal 
faces forward and to the right. The two pull against 
each other visually. 


Diverging lines and movement are the key to 
dynamic tension. Here, the branches of a tree 
and its strong curving shadow have powerful 
outward movement, exaggerated by the 20 mm 
efl (equivalent focal length) wide-angle lens. 
The distortion and placement of the building 
make it seem to move left, out of frame. 



Sorting and tramping down freshly picked cotton 
south of Khartoum, two Sudanese women move 
deftly and gracefully. A wide-angle lens exaggerates 
the geometry of the image close to the edges of the 
frame, and from a sequence of shots the one chosen 
here has the most energy and movement — the lines 
and gestures pull the attention outward at both left 
and right. 






We are conditioned to accepting the idea 
of a background. In other words, from 
our normal visual experience, we assume that 
in most scenes that is something that we look at 
(the subject), and there is a setting against which 
it stands or lies (the background) . One stands 
forward, the other recedes. One is important, and 
the reason for taking a photograph; the other is 
just there because something has to occupy the 
rest of the frame. As we saw, this is an essential 
principle of Gestalt theory. 

In most picture situations, that is essentially 
true. We select something as the purpose of the 
image, and it is more often than not a discrete 
object or group of objects. It may be a person, 
a still-life, a group of buildings, a part of 
something. What is behind the focus of interest 
is the background, and in many well- designed 
and satisfying images, it complements the subject. 
Often, we already know what the subject is 
before the photography begins. The main point 
of interest has been decided on: a human figure, 
perhaps, or a horse, or a car. If it is possible to 
control the circumstances of the picture, the 

next decision may well be to choose the 
background: that is, to decide which of the 
locally available settings will show off the 
subject to its best advantage. This occurs so 
often, as you can see from a casual glance at 
most of the pictures in this book, that it 
scarcely even merits mention. 

There are, however, circumstances when 
the photographer can choose which of two 
components in a view is to be the figure and 
which is to be the ground against which the 
figure is seen. This opportunity occurs when 
there is some ambiguity in the image, and it helps 
to have a minimum of realistic detail. In this 
respect, photography is at an initial disadvantage 
to illustration, because it is hard to remove the 
inherent realism in a photograph. In particular, 
the viewer knows that the image is of something 
real, and so the eye searches for clues. 

Some of the purest examples of ambiguous 
figure/ground relationships are in Japanese and 
Chinese calligraphy, in which the white spaces 
between the brush strokes are just as active 
and coherent as the black characters. When 

the ambiguity is greatest, an alternation of 
perception occurs. At one moment the dark tones 
advance, at another they recede. Two interlinked 
images fluctuate backwards and forwards. The 
preconditions for this are fairly simple. There 
should be two tones in the image, and they should 
contrast as much as possible. The two areas 
should be as equal as possible. Finally, there 
should be limited clues in the content of 
the picture as to what is in front of what. 

The point of importance here is not how to 
make illusory photographs, but how to use or 
remove ambiguity in the relationship between 
subject and background. The two examples 
shown here, both silhouettes, use the same 
technique as the calligraphy: the real background 
is lighter than the real subject, which tends to 
make it move forward; the areas are nearly equal; 
the shapes are not completely obvious at first 
glance. The shapes are, however, recognizable, 
even if only after a moment's study. The figure/ 
ground ambiguity is used, not as an attempt to 
create and abstract illusion, but to add some 
optical tension and interest to the images. 


In this sequence of shots closing in on the subject, 
the subject is a monk praying at the side of a 
Burmese stupa, silhouetted against the golden 
wall of a large pagoda. The sequence from left 
to right moves from straightforward and obvious 
towards some ambiguity, and the final crop is 
designed to make the light and dark areas equal 
in size. As the background is light, this creates a 
visual alternation, increasing its abstraction. 

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The view across the courtyard of a Nubian house in 
northern Sudan is through two rammed-earth open 
window frames. In the harsh sunlight, the contrast 
between light and shade is extreme, and cropping 
the frame carefully so that the areas of light and dark 
are equal creates a figure-ground ambiguity — the 
more so because light is normally expected to stand 
forward from dark. 




When there are several similar elements in 
a scene, their arrangement may, under 
special conditions, set up a rhythmic visual 
structure. Repetition is a necessary ingredient, but 
this alone does not guarantee a sense of rhythm. 
There is an obvious musical analogy, and it makes 
considerable sense. Like the beat in a piece of 
music, the optical beat in a picture can vary from 
being completely regular to variations similar to, 
for instance, syncopation. 

Rhythm in a picture needs time and the 
movement of the eye to be appreciated. The 
dimensions of the frame, therefore, set some limits, 
so that what can be seen is not much more than 
a rhythmical phrase. However, the eye and mind 
are naturally adept at extending what they see (the 
Gestalt Law of Good Continuation), and — in a 
photograph such as that of the row of soldiers on 
page 183 — readily assume the continuation of the 
rhythm. In this way, a repeating flow of images is 
perceived as being longer than can actually be seen. 

Rhythm is a feature of the way the eye scans the 
picture as much as of the repetition. It is strongest 
when each cycle in the beat encourages the eye 
to move (just as in the example to the right). The 
natural tendency of the eye to move from side to 
side (see pages 12-15) is particularly evident here, as 
rhythm needs direction and flow in order to come 
alive. The rhythmical movement is therefore usually 
up and down, as vertical rhythm is much less easily 
perceived. Rhythm produces considerable strength 
in an image, as it does in music. It has momentum, 
and because of this, a sense of continuation. Once 
the eye has recognized the repetition, the viewer 
assumes that the repetition will continue beyond 
the frame. 

Rhythm is also a feature of repetitive 
action, and this has real practical significance in 
photographing work and similar activity. In the 
main picture opposite, of Indian farmers in the 
countryside near Madras winnowing rice, the 
potential soon became apparent. The first picture 
in the sequence is uninteresting but shows the 
situation. The individual action was to scoop rice 
into the basket and hold it high, tipping it gently 

so that the breeze would separate the rice from 
the chaff. Each person worked independently, 
but inevitably two or more would be in the same 
position at the same time. It was then a matter of 
waiting for the moment in which three were in 
unison, and finding a viewpoint that would align 
them so that the rhythm has maximum graphic 
effect. These things are never certain — someone 
could simply stop work — but the possibility in a 
situation like this is high. 



When the rhythm is predictable, as in this palace 
facade in Jaipur, India, the repetition is frequently 
boring. In this case, an anomaly that interrupts the 
rhythm can make the image more dynamic. Here, 
a man sweeping provides the necessary break. 
Note that, as the eye naturally follows a rhythmical 
structure from left to right, it works better to place 
the figure on the far right, so that the eye has time 
to establish the rhythm. 




In line, shot with a wide-angle lens, the action is 
graphically strongly directional, and for this reason 
the figures are placed left of center so that the 
direction is into frame. The stance of the woman 
closest the camera adds to the curved flow. Typical 
of such a situation, in which the basics are known 
but there is no control by the photographer, are the 
many distractions and small happenings that do not 
(of course) conform to what the photographer would 
like. This seguence shows things gradually getting 
closer to what the photographer had in mind. 



Like rhythm, pattern is built on repetition, 
but unlike rhythm it is associated with area, 
not direction. A pattern does not encourage the 
eye to move in a particular way, but rather to 
roam across the surface of the picture. It has at 
least an element of homogeneity, and, as a result, 
something of a static nature. 

The prime quality of a pattern is that it covers 
an area, thus the photographs that show the 
strongest pattern are those in which it extends 
right to the edges of the frame. Then, as with 
an edge-to-edge rhythm, the phenomenon of 
continuation occurs, and the eye assumes that 
the pattern extends beyond. The photograph 
of the bicycle saddles illustrates this. In other 
words, showing any border at all to the pattern 
establishes limits; if none can be seen, the image 
is take to be a part of a larger area. 

At the same time, the larger the number of 
elements that can be seen in the picture, the more 
there is a sense of pattern than of a group of 
individual objects. This operates up to a quantity 
at which the individual elements become difficult 
to distinguish and so become more of a texture. 
In terms of the number of elements, the effective 
limits lie between about ten and several hundred, 
and a useful exercise when faced with a mass of 
similar objects is to start at a distance (or with 
a focal length) that takes in the entire group, 
making sure that they reach the frame edges, 
and then take successive photographs, closing in, 
ending with just four or five of the units. Within 
this sequence of images there will be one or two 
in which the pattern effect is strongest. Pattern, 
in other words, also depends on scale. 

A pattern seen at a sufficiently large scale 
takes on the appearance of texture. Texture is 
the primary quality of a surface. The structure 
of an object is its form, whereas the structure of 
the material from which it is made is its texture. 
Like pattern, it is determined by scale. The 
texture of a piece of sandstone is the roughness 
of the individual compacted grains, a fraction 
of a millimeter across. Then think of the same 
sandstone as part of a cliff; the cliff face is now 

the surface, and the texture is on a much larger 
scale, the cracks and ridges of the rock. Finally, 
think of a chain of mountains that contains this 
cliff face. A satellite picture shows even the largest 
mountains as wrinkles on the surface of the earth: 
its texture. This kind of repeating scale of texture 
is related to fractal geometry. 

Texture is a quality of structure rather than 
of tone or color, and so appeals principally to 
the sense of touch. Even if we cannot physically 
reach out and touch it, its appearance works 
through this sensory channel. This explains why 
texture is revealed through lighting — at a small 
scale, only this throws up relief. Specifically, the 
direction and quality of the lighting are therefore 
important. Relief, and thus texture, appears 
strongest when the lighting is oblique, and when 
the light is hard rather than soft and diffuse. 
These conditions combine to create the sharpest 
shadows thrown by each element in the texture, 
whether it is the weave in a fabric, the wrinkles 
in leather, or the grain in wood. As a rule, the 
finer the texture, the more oblique and hard the 
lighting it needs to be seen clearly — except that 


The massing of subjects has its own appeal, both 
graphic and in the sense of wonder at sheer 
unexpected quantity. Filling, or nearly filling, 
the frame is more or less essential for this kind 
of image to work. In this case, even though the 
angle of view is low, a 600 mm telephoto lens 
compresses the mass. 

the smoothest of all surfaces are reflective, 
such as polished metal, and texture is replaced 
by reflection (see page 124). 

Related to pattern and texture, but with 
content playing a stronger role, is the idea 
of many, as in a crowd of people or a large 
shoal of fish. The appeal of huge numbers 
of similar things lies often in the surprise of 
seeing so many of them in one place and at 
one time. The view of the Kaaba in Mecca, 
seen from one of the minarets, for example, 
is said to take in at least a million people, and 
this fact is itself remarkable. Large numbers 
congregating usually constitutes an event. 
Framing to within the edges of the mass allows 
the eye to believe that it continues indefinitely. 




Ordered rows and other geometric arrangements of 
large numbers of things make regular patterns. The 
alignment in an example like this is not particularly 
attractive, and the interest of the photograph 
depends very much on the nature of the object: 
bottle tops would be less appealing than these small 
religious plaques. Note that the sense of pattern 
depends on scale and number; a crop would lose it. 


To be irregular and yet still appear 
as a pattern, objects must still be 
grouped closely; the irregularity 
is not quite so disordered as it 
may seem. The effectiveness 
of a pattern also depends on 
how much area it covers. If the 
elements reach the borders of 
the frame all round, as in this 
photograph, the eye assumes 
that they continue beyond. 


Patterns tend to be directionless, 
and so often make better 
backgrounds than subjects in 
themselves. In this example, 
however, the mass of pearls, 
freshly extracted at a Thai pearl 
farm, is the subject. To show 
quantity, they were arranged 
to reach beyond the four edges, 
but to make an image out of 
the arrangement, a contrasting 
visual element was included — a 
discoloured baroque pearl — 
which breaks the pattern in 
order to emphasize it. 


The classic lighting condition for revealing texture 
at its strongest is at an active angle and with a 
direct, undiffused source. The sun in a clear sky 
is the hardest source available, and here, almost 
parallel to this wrought-iron grill, it makes texture 
dominate the image. 




One of the paradoxes of vision is that while 
the image projected onto the retina obeys 
the laws of optics and shows distant objects 
smaller than nearer ones, the brain, given 
sufficient clues, knows their proper size. And, in 
one view, the brain accepts both realities — distant 
objects that are small and full-scale at the same 
time. The same thing happens with linear 
perspective. The parallel sides of a road stretching 
away from us converge optically but at the same 
time are perceived as straight and parallel. The 
explanation for this is known as "constancy 
scaling" or "scale constancy," a little-understood 
perceptual mechanism that allows the mind to 

resolve the inconsistencies of depth. Its impact on 
photography is that the recorded image is purely 
optical, so that distant objects appear only small, 
and parallel lines do converge. As in painting, 
photography has to pursue various strategies to 
enhance or reduce the sense of depth, and images 
work within their own frame of reference, not 
that of normal perception. 

Photography's constant relationship with 
real scenes makes the sense of depth in a picture 
always important, and this in turn influences 
the realism of the photograph. In its broadest 
sense, perspective is the appearance of objects in 
space, and their relationships to each other and 



Choose a viewpoint that shows a range of distance. 

Alter the viewpoint so that different distances 

in the scene appear as unconnected planes; the 

fewer the better. 

A wide-angle lens enhances linear perspective if 
used close to the nearest parts of the scene, and 
can show a large foreground-to-distance range. 

Atelephoto lens compresses these planes, 

reducing linear perspective, if used from 

a distance. 

Place warm-hued subjects against cool-hued 

Place cool-hued subjects against warm-hued 

Use more direct, less diffused lighting. 

Use frontal lighting, diffused and shadowless. 

Use lighting or placement to keep bright tones 
in the foreground and dark tones behind. 

Equalize or reverse the distribution of tones, so 
that light objects do not appear in the foreground. 

Where applicable, include familiar-sized objects 

at different distances to give recognizable scale. 

Ideally, have similar objects. 

Maximize the depth of field so that, ideally, 

the entire picture is sharply focused. With a view 

camera or tilt lens, use the movements to increase 

overall sharpness. 

Allow the focus to become unsharp towards 
the distance. 

Reduce atmospheric haze by using ultraviolet 
or polarizing filters. 


the viewer. More usually, in photography it is 
used to describe the intensity of the impression 
of depth. The various types of perspective and 
other depth controls will be described in a 
moment, but before this we ought to consider 
how to use them, and why. Given the ability 
to make a difference to the perspective, under 
what conditions will it help the photograph to 
enhance, or to diminish, the sense of depth? 
A heightened sense of depth through strong 
perspective tends to improve the viewer's sense 
of being there in front of a real scene. It makes 
more of the representational qualities of the 
subject, and less of the graphic structure. 

The following types of perspective contain 
the main variables that affect our sense of depth 
in a photograph. Which ones dominate depends 
on the situation, as does the influence that the 
photographer has over them. 


In two-dimensional imagery, this is, overall, the 
most prominent type of perspective effect. Linear 
perspective is characterized by converging lines. 
These lines are, in most scenes, actually parallel, 
like the edges of a road and the top and bottom 
of a wall, but if they recede from the camera, 
they appear to converge toward one or more 
vanishing points. If they continue in the image 
for a sufficient distance, they do actually meet at 
a real point. If the camera is level, and the view is 
a landscape, the horizontal lines will converge on 
the horizon. If the camera is pointed upward, the 
vertical lines, such as the sides of a building, will 
converge toward some unspecified part of the sky; 
visually, this is more difficult for most people to 
accept as a normal image. 


Taken with a tilt lens, this image is sharp not only on 
the nearby cartographical texts, but also at the far side 
of the room. A tilt lens places the lens elements at an 
angle to the sensor, which in turn places the focal 
plane of the image at a correspondingly stronger 
angle from the camera's sensor chip. 



g — 



In the process of convergence, all or most 
of the lines become diagonal, and this, as we'll 
see on pages 76-77, induces visual tension and 
a sense of movement. The movement itself adds 
to the perception of depth, along lines that 
carry the eye into and out of the scene. By 
association, therefore, diagonal lines of all kinds 
contain a suggestion of depth, and this includes 
shadows which, if seen obliquely, can appear as 
lines. So a direct sun, particularly if low in the 
sky, will enhance perspective if the shadows it 
casts fall diagonally. Viewpoint determines the 
degree of convergence, and the more acute the 
angle of view to the surface, the greater this is — 
at least until the camera is close to ground level, 
at which point the convergence becomes extreme 
enough to disappear. 

The focal length of lens is another important 
factor in linear perspective. Of two lenses aimed 

directly towards the vanishing point of a scene, 
the wide-angle lens will show more of the 
diagonals in the foreground, and these will tend 
to dominate the structure of the image more. 
Hence, wide-angle lenses have a propensity to 
enhance linear perspective, while telephoto lenses 
tend to flatten it. 


This is related to linear perspective, and is in 
fact a form of it. Imagine a row of identical 
trees lining a road. A view along the road would 
produce the familiar convergence in the line 
of trees, but individually they will appear to 
be successively smaller. This is diminishing 
perspective, and works most effectively with 
identical or similar objects at different distances. 
For similar reasons, anything of recognizable 
size will give a standard of scale; in the 


A 20 mm efl wide-angle lens and a viewpoint that 
shows the parallel lines of a wall (Hadrian's Wall 
in the north of England) receding directly from 
the camera provide classic conditions for strong 
linear perspective. The height of the camera above 
the wall determines the vertical distance visible in 
the photograph. This in turn determines the degree 
of convergence (see page 55). 

appropriate place in the scene, it helps to establish 
perspective. Also associated with diminishing 
perspective are placement (things in the lower 
part of the picture are, through familiarity, 
assumed to be in the foreground) and overlap 
(if the outline of one object overlaps another, 
it is assumed to be the one in front). 




The angle of view to the surface that carries 
the converging lines determines the strength 
of the perspective effect. Too low fails to read 
clearly; too high shows little convergence. 






A— - 




The same viewpoint with lenses of different 
focal lengths gives a more diagonal convergent 
image from the wider-angle lens. 




Atmospheric haze acts as a filter, reducing the 
contrast in distant parts of a scene and lightening 
their tone. Our familiarity with this effect (pale 
horizons, for example), enables our eyes to use 
it as a clue to depth. Hazy, misty scenes appear 
deeper than they really are because of their strong 
aerial perspective. It can be enhanced by using 
backlighting, as in the example below, and by 
not using filters (such as those designed to cut 
ultraviolet radiation) that reduce haze. Telephoto 
lenses tend to show more aerial perspective than 
wide-angle lenses if used on different subjects, 
because they show less of nearby things that have 
little haze between them and the camera. Favoring 
the blue channel when using channel mixing to 
convert an RGB digital image to black and white 
also accentuates the effect. 


Apart from the lightening effect that haze has on 
distant things, light tones appear to advance and 
dark tones recede. So, a light object against a dark 
background will normally stand forward, with a 
strong sense of depth. This can be controlled by 
placing subjects carefully, or by lighting. Doing 
the reverse, as we saw on pages 46-47, creates a 
figure-ground ambiguity. 


Warm colors tend to advance perceptually and 
cool colors recede. Other factors apart, therefore, 
a red or orange subject against a green or blue 
background will have a sense of depth for purely 
optical reasons. Again, appropriate positioning 
can be used as a control. The more intense the 
colors, the stronger the effect, but if there is a 
difference in intensity, it should be in favour of 
the foreground. 


Progressively lighter shadow tones indicate the 
effects of an increasing depth of atmospheric 
haze, and so establish depth. The effect appears 
strongly in back-lighting similar to this. 


1 1 IrfvH 


In this line of memorial arches in Anhui province, China, the eye assumes 
that they are identical. Their diminishing size establishes a strong sense 
of depth. There is also aerial perspective present because of the mist. 




Good definition suggests closeness, and anything 
that creates a difference in sharpness in favor of 
the foreground will enhance the impression of 
depth. Atmospheric haze has something of this 
effect. The most powerful control, however, is 
focus. If there is a difference in sharpness across 
the image, through familiarity we take this as a 
depth clue — either that the foreground is out of 
focus, or the background, or both. 

fit J w 




Selective focus establishes depth by exploiting two 
perceptual triggers. One is attracting attention to 
the areas with most density of information (that 
is, focused). The other is our experience of looking 
at photographs, in which an out-of-focus area 
overlapping a sharp area is known to be in front. 
In addition, in this image of a hill-tribe village 
in northern Thailand, there is a psychological 
component — the sense of standing outside the 
community peering in. 

sff'^™ 4 


Frontal lighting and clear weather are the two conditions that reduce 
aerial perspective, as in this early morning dockside photograph. The 
tones and local contrast in the background and foreground, are very 
similar, and give little sense of depth. 




So obvious as to be a truism is that we look 
most at what interests us. This means that 
as we start to look at anything, whether a real 
scene or an image, we bring to the task "stored 
knowledge" that we have accumulated from 
experience. Recent research in perception 
confirms this; Deutsch and Deutsch (1963) 
proposed "importance weightings" as a main 
factor in visual attention. This is crucial in 
deciding how photographs will be looked 
at, because in addition to the composition, 
certain kinds of content will do more than 
others to attract the eye. Of course, filtering 
out idiosyncrasy is difficult, to say the least, but 
there are some useful generalizations. Certain 
subjects will tend to attract people more than 
others, either because we have learned to expect 
more information from them or because 
they appeal to our emotions or desires. 

The most common high-attractant subjects 
are the key parts of the human face, especially 

the eyes and mouth, almost certainly because this 
is where we derive most of our information for 
deciding how someone will react. In fact, research 
into the nervous system has shown that there are 
specific brain modules for recognizing faces, and 
others for recognizing hands — clear proof of how 
important these subjects are visually. 

Another class of subject that attracts the 
eye with a high weighting is writing — again, 
something of obvious high-information value. 
In street photography, for example, signs and 
billboards have a tendency to divert attention, 
and the meaning of the words can add another 
level of interest — consider a word intended to 
shock, as is sometimes used in advertising. Even 
if the language is unknown to the viewer (for 
example, the image on page 42 for any non- 
Chinese speaker), it still appears to command 
attention. Ansel Adams, on the subject of a 
photograph of Chinese grave markers, wrote, 
"Inscriptions in a foreign language can have 

a direct aesthetic quality, unmodified by the 
imposition of meaning," but the very fact 
that they had any visual quality was because 
they represented a language. 

As well as these "informational" subjects, 
there is an even wider and harder-to-define class 
that appeals to the emotions. These include sexual 
attraction (erotic and pornographic images), 
cuteness (baby animals and pets, for example), 
horror (scenes of death and violence), disgust, 
fashion, desirable goods, and novelty. Reactions 
in this class depend more on the individual 
interests of the viewer. 

There is no way of accurately balancing 
all of these weightings, but on an intuitive level 
it is fairly easy, as long as the photographer is 
conscious of the various degrees of attraction. 
All of this content-based weighting also has to be 
set against the complex ways in which the form 
of the image — the graphic elements and colors — 
directs attention. 


In this Indian street scene, the clear focus of interest is the man doing 
what must be an extremely unpleasant and possibly dangerous job in 
the middle of the traffic. However, as happens all too often in India, any 
delay in shooting results in people staring at the camera, which was 
not what I wanted but was unavoidable, given the time it took to move 
into position. In the second version, the face of the onlooker has been 
cropped out, and whether or not this is an improvement to the overall 
image, it certainly demonstrates the difference in the way the eye 
naturally travels around the frame. 

1 '*' 

-— Ml 





A close-up of fish parts in a Kyoto market unexpectedly offers three "attractants" in 
one — an eye (admittedly separated from the fish, but nevertheless still an eye), writing, 
and a strong color patch. These three framings were taken naturally, with no intention 
of making an exercise. In the first, the eye is the undisputed focus, and placed slightly 
off-center. Pulling back and up, in the second frame, reveals one-and-a-half Japanese 
characters, and the attention is strongly diverted towards this corner. Pulling back even 
farther, and down, brings a piece of blue plastic into view, so that they eye 
travels between the three points of interest. 






How people look at images is of fundamental 
importance to painters, photographers, 
and anyone else who creates those images. The 
premise of this book is that the way you compose 
a photograph will influence the way in which 
someone else looks at it. While this is tacitly 
accepted throughout the visual arts, pinpointing 
the how and the why of visual attention has been 
hampered by lack of information. Traditionally, 
art and photography critics have used their 
own experience and empathy to divine what 
a viewer might or should get out of a picture, 
but it is only in the last few decades that this 
has been researched. Eye-tracking provides the 
experimental evidence for how people look at 
a scene or an image, and the groundbreaking 
study was by A. L. Yarbus in 1967. In looking 
at any scene or image, the eye scans it in fast 
jumps, moving from one point of interest to 
another. These movements of both eyes together 
are known as saccades. One reason for them 
is that only the central part of the retina, the 
fovea, has high resolution, and a succession of 
saccades allows the brain to assemble a total view 
in the short-term memory. The eye's saccadic 
movements can be tracked, and the so-called 
"scanpath" recorded. If then superimposed on 
the view — such as a photograph — it shows how 
and in what order a viewer scanned the image. 
All of this happens so quickly (saccades last 
between 20 and 200 milliseconds) that most 
people are unaware of their pattern of looking. 
Research, however, shows that there are different 
types of looking, depending on what the viewer 
expects to get from the experience. There is 
spontaneous looking, in which the viewer is "just 
looking," without any particular thing in mind. 
The gaze pattern is influenced by such factors as 
novelty, complexity, and incongruity. In the case 
of a photograph, the eye is attracted to things 
that are of interest and to parts of the picture that 
contain information useful for making sense out 
of it. Visual weight, as we saw on the previous 
pages, plays an important role; this is because 
spontaneous looking is also influenced by "stored 

knowledge," which includes, among other things, 
knowing that eyes and lips tell a great deal about 
other people's moods and attitudes. 

A second type of looking is task- relevant 
looking, in which the viewer sets out to look for 
something or gain specific information from 
an image or scene. In looking at a photograph, 
we can assume that the viewer is doing this 
by choice, and probably for some kind of 
pleasure or entertainment (or in the hope that 
the photograph will deliver this) . This is an 
important starting condition. Next come the 
viewer's expectations. For instance, if he or 
she sees at first glance that there is something 
unusual or unexplained about the image, this is 
likely to cause a gaze pattern that is searching for 
information that will explain the circumstances. 
The classic study was by Yarbus in 1967, in which 
a picture of a visitor arriving in a living room 
was shown first without any instructions, and 
then with six different prior questions, including 
estimating the ages of the people in the image. 
The very different scanpaths showed how the 
task influenced the looking. 

Other research in this area shows that most 
people tend to agree on what are the most 
informative parts of a picture, but that this is always 
tempered by individual experience (personal stored 
knowledge makes scanpaths idiosyncratic). Also, 
most painters and photographers believe that they 
can in some way control the way that other people 
view their work (this is, after all, the entire theme of 
this book), and research backs this up, in particular 
an experiment (Hansen & Stovring, 1988) in 
which an artist explained how he intended viewers 
to look at the work and subsequent eye-tracking 
proved him largely correct. Another experiment 
with interesting potential is that the scanpath that 
emerges at first viewing occupies about 30% of the 
viewing time, and that most viewers then repeat 
it — re- scanning the same way rather than using 
the time to explore other parts of the picture. In 
other words, most people decide quite quickly 
what they think is important and/or interesting 
in an image, and go on looking at those parts. 


In this photograph of a holding tent at a Red Cross 
hospital for combat injuries in the Sudan civil war, 
I wanted to show two things more or less equally. 
One was the injured soldier, an amputee, and 
the other was the rich history of graffiti that had 
accumulated over time. This graffiti contained one 
obvious slogan that removes the need for a caption, 
and drawings of animals, in particular cattle (many 
of the patients had been from cattle-rearing ethnic 
groups), and recalled cave paintings. Although the 
way in which the photograph would be viewed was 
not mapped out with any precision, I identified the 
key elements in my order of intention (outlined 
and numbered in the upper illustration). From this 
I had an approximate intended order of viewing, as 
indicated by the arrows on the lower illustration 
(this admittedly reconstructed for the purposes of 
this page). 






The relationship between the content and 
the geometry of a photograph, and the 
difficulty of separating them for analysis, has 
caused anguish, or at least sustained puzzlement, 
in more than a few writers. Roland Barthes, 
for example, considered photography more or 
less unclassifiable because it "always carries its 
referent with itself" and there is "no photograph 
without something or someone." 

As a philosophical issue, this applies to 
the finished image and to reverse readings of 
photographs, but in the context of making a 
photograph, matters tend to be simplified by 
knowledge of the task at hand. At some point 
in the making of almost every photograph, the 
photographer knows what the subject should 

be and is solving the problem of how best to 
make it into an image. 

Content is the subject matter, both concrete 
(objects, people, scenes, and so on) and abstract 
(events, actions, concepts, and emotions). The 
role it plays in influencing the design is complex, 
because it has a specific attention value. Moreover, 
different classes of subject tend to direct the 
shooting method, largely for practical reasons. In 
news photography, the fact of an event is the crucial 
issue, at least for the editors. It is possible to shoot at 
a news event and treat it in a different way, perhaps 
looking for something more generic or symbolic, 
but this then is no longer true news photography. 
And if the facts rule the shooting, there is likely 
to be less opportunity or reason to experiment 

with individual treatments. Strong content, in other 
words, tends to call for straight treatment — practical 
rather than unusual composition. 

Perhaps at this point the following tale from 
British photographer George Rodger (1908- 
1995), a co-founder of Magnum, would not be 
out of place, even though fortunately most of 
us will never find ourselves in such an extreme 
situation. At the end of the Second World War, 
Rodger entered Belsen concentration camp with 
Allied troops. He later said, in an interview, 
"When I discovered that I could look at the 
horror of Belsen — 4,000 dead and starving lying 
around — and think only of a nice photographic 
composition, I knew something had happened 
to me and it had to stop." 




I include this image because I thought, the evening of the day I shot 
it, of George Rodger's comment about Belsen. The occasion was the 
return to Cambodia for the first time for the protagonists of the 
film The Killing Fields — both Dith Pran, on whose experiences the 
film was based, and Haing Ngor, who played his role in the film, 
and received an Oscar for it. The content is not only dominant, but 
horrible. It raised moral issues for me and the writer, my friend Roger 
Warner.The purpose of the trip was to make a powerful story for an 
American television show, Prime Time, with our assignment for The 
Sunday Times Magazine secondary. What everyone wanted to do, 
particularly Dith Pran and Haing Ngor, was to remind as wide a public 
as possible of the genocide, which meant that everyone knew they 
had a job to do. Dith Pran, in particular, had been holding his emotions 
in check, which meant that the producer of the program was having 
difficulty conveying the personal horror of the situation. Roger and 
I knew of this untended old schoolhouse near Angkor where skulls 
and bones had been roughly deposited. It was obvious that the two 
men would be distraught if they visited here. We put it to them; they 
both accepted because they knew that the documentary and the 
picture story would be more effective as a result. It was not pleasant 
for anyone, but we all deemed it necessary. As you might imagine, any 
discussion of composition or technique would be distasteful. Yet, as 
any professional photographer will recognize, you always bring your 
skills and decisions to every shooting situation, and probably with 
more care and respect in a situation such as this. 


The subject, hard to guess from 
this view, is the melting of gold 
ingots in a crucible. Seen from 
overhead, the graphics and colors 
were surprising and delightful — 
in other words, an opportunity to 
create a visually surprising image. 


This image is very much about a fact — an object and an event — and 
almost the entire interest lies in what is happening, not in the camera 
angle or geometry. The caption reads: "The 'Buddha of the Golden 
Spectacles' in a small town near Pye, Burma. The Buddha is reputed to 
have powers to help eyesight problems, and this pair of giant spectacles 
was donated by a British colonial officer in thanks for a cure for his wife's 
difficulties.The spectacles are cleaned monthly." 







The vocabulary of design is made up 
of what we can call graphic elements, 
the two-dimensional forms that appear 
inside the picture frame. In classic design 
theory, relating to painting and illustration, 
it is not so difficult to isolate these marks 
and forms on the paper from real subjects; 
the things that they might be used to 
represent. Painting and illustration offer 
no compulsion to be realistic, so that an 
abstract treatment of the basic elements 
is perfectly acceptable to the viewer. 

In photography, however, this is not 
completely straightforward. We come back 
to its unique property, that its images are 
always taken directly from real things.The 
marks on a photographic print are never 
the same as those drawn by hand. They 
always represent something that existed. 
This by no means invalidates the idea of 
graphic elements, but it does make them 
more complex in the way they act. 

The simplest elements of all are points, 
which tend to draw attention. An order 

higher than these are lines, which are 
valuable in directing and creating vectors. 
An order above these are shapes, which 
have the role of organizing the elements 
of an image and bringing structure. What 
we choose to identify in a photograph as 
a point, line, or shape often depends on 
how we ourselves choose to consider an 
image, and this can be influenced by the 
content and our understanding of and 
interest in it. 

All three groups are intimately 
connected, because the simplest graphic 
elements tend to create more complex 
structures. A row of points implies a line, 
lines can define shapes, and so on. Thus 
shapes are intimately connected, both 
graphically and expressively, with lines. 
Rectangles are the product of horizontal 
and vertical lines,triangles are built 
from diagonals, and circles from curves. 
Although it might seem that there is 
an infinite number of shapes, there are 
only three basic ones: rectangle, triangle, 

and circle. All others, from trapezoids to 
ellipses, are variations on these, and as 
their importance in composition relies on 
their fundamental recognizability, there 
is no need to go beyond these three basic 
planar figures. Subtly formed shapes that 
are implied and understated are among 
the most useful of all; they help to order an 
image into a recognizable form and allow 
the eye the satisfaction of discovering 
them by making a little visual effort. 

These are the classic elements in any 
graphic art, but for photography there 
are others, too — visual qualities from the 
process that are uniquely photographic. 
These purely photographic influences can 
sometimes be limitations (for example 
insufficient light for a motion-stopping 
shutter speed) and sometimes a kind of 
artifact (for exam pie, flare). However, they 
can also be used deliberately to work for 
the image (for example, color blur from 
de-focus), and can be enjoyed as part of 
the syntax of photography. 




The most basic element of all is the point. By 
definition, a point has to be a very small part 
of the total image, but to be significant it must 
contrast in some way with its setting — in tone or 
color, for example. The simplest form of a point 
in a photograph is an isolated object seen from 
a distance, against a relatively plain background, 
such as a boat on water, or a bird against the 
sky. There is no simpler design situation in 
photography than this: one element without 
significant shape, and a single background. 
The main consideration, then, is the matter of 
placement. Wherever the point is in the frame, it 
will be seen straight away. Placing it in a certain 
position is chiefly for the aesthetics of the picture, 
to give it whatever balance or interest is wanted, 
and perhaps paying heed to background. 

Some of the issues involved in positioning the 
subject in the frame have already been covered on 
pages 24-25, and most of what was said applies 
here. To summarize: from a purely aesthetic point 
of view, placing a point right in the middle of 
the frame may be logical, but it is also static and 
uninteresting, and is rarely satisfactory. The choice 
then becomes how far off center to place the 
point, and in what direction? The more eccentric 
the position, the more it demands justification. 

Free placement, however, is never guaranteed 
in photography, and the conditions are often such 
that you cannot arrange things exactly as you 
would like them, even with changes of lens or 
viewpoint. This is the case with the photograph 
of the rice farmer on pages 68-69, but the result 
is still not so bad. What it demonstrates is how 
much leeway exists in photographic composition. 
Also (and this is a personal judgment), it 
is usually better to err on the side of doing 
something unusual than to be predictable. 


The tonal contrast between the white egret and its 
background make it a natural point. Notice that only 
a slight reason is needed to influence the direction 
of a point's location; in this case, the weak patch of 
sunlight is sufficient to place the egret toward the 
top left corner of the picture, to oppose it. 


Practically, there are three zones in a picture frame 
for placing a single, dominant point. However, the 
limits that are drawn here for convenience are not, 
in reality, precise. A point has two basic relationships 
with the frame. In one, there are implied forces that 
are in proportion to its distance from each corner and 
side. In the other, implied lines suggest a horizontal 
and vertical division of the frame. 


Static, and usually dull. 


Markedly eccentric, needing some justification. 






Moderately dynamic, without being extreme. 






This sequence shows some of the practical issues involved in 
composing a photograph around a single point. The setting was 
a rice field in northern Thailand. The intention was to create just 
this kind of shot-one person surrounded by green right up to 
the frame edges-but because the viewpoint was only slightly 
elevated, there was little choice at the top of the frame. The first 
four frames were shot with a 180 mm efl lens, and the results too 
eccentric in placement. Accordingly, the lens was switched to a 
400 mm efl, which allowed more room relatively at the top; every 
shot was framed as high as possible without leaving the rice field. 
Vertical variations were also tried, but the shot finally used on a 
magazine double-spread was number 5, the choice influenced by 
the farmer's action. 

r ■- .. 





As soon as even one more point is added, 
the simplicity is lost. Two dominant points 
in a frame create a dimension of distance, a 
measurement of part of the frame. The strength 
of the relationship between two points depends, 
naturally, on how dominant they are and on 
how receding the background is. The examples 
chosen here are quite strong in this respect, but 
in complex images, additional picture elements 
reduce two-point relationships. 

The eye is induced to move from one point 
to another and back, so there is always an 
implied line connecting the points. This line 
is the most important dynamic in a two-point 
image; being a line, it has a relationship with 
the horizontals and verticals of the frame, and 
it also has direction. The direction of the line 
depends on a variety of factors, but it will tend 

to be from the stronger to the weaker point, 
and toward the point that is close to an edge. 

Several points carry the sense of occupying 
the space between them, again by implication. 
In this way, they can unify the area. This effect, 
however, depends on their location and spacing, 
and with a group the eye has an almost irresistible 
tendency to create shapes from their arrangement 
(see Gestalt Viewing on page 36). These may serve 
to exclude other areas of the frame and so, in 
effect, break up the image. 

When several objects need to be arranged 
for a photograph, the order and placement can 
become very demanding. How structured should 
the grouping be? Should there be an attempt 
at naturalness? If it is completely obvious 
that the image is of an arrangement, and not 
found, as is the case with the three examples 

on page 71 (jade, pearls, and resin-encased 
objects), too artful an arrangement may simply 
insult the viewer's intelligence. The American 
photographer Frederick Sommer had this to say 
about arranged versus found compositions (he 
was actually being asked if he had rearranged 
a group of carcasses): "Things come to our 
awareness in ways that are much more complex 
than we could arrange. Let me give you an 
example. We could take five pebbles, just a little 
bit larger than dice, of a somewhat irregular 
shape. We would find that we could continue 
throwing them endlessly, and will get interesting 
arrangements. Every throw of these stones would 
bring us a combination of relationships that 
we could not even approach by arranging them 
ourselves. In other words, the forces in nature 
are constantly at work for us." 


Workers at a Thai rice mill cross and re-cross an 
open space covered with rice husks. From a rooftop 
vantage point, there was plenty of choice of timing 
and placement, and there is a case in favor of each. 
Note the different dynamics between horizontal 
and vertical formats. 



A set-up still-life arrangement, taken on location 
at a jade dealer's.The rough stones provided the 
background, one of them with a characteristic 
"window" ground out of its surface.This determined 
the area available for laying out the nine cabochons. 
One of the most eye-catching occasions in unplanned 
photography is the unexpected appearance of 
regular shapes and patterns, but studio photography 
often poses a reverse problem. It is clear that the 
stones have been arranged and not found. Yet 


Another still-life arrangement, this time of rare 
orange pearls. Here the key decision was to provide 
a background of polished black pebbles for textural 
and color contrast.The effect they had on the 
composition was to offer a limited number of gaps 
between them for placing the pearls.The final 
structure chosen was a kind of horseshoe curve. 

the style of the image is loose, not geometric. 
Arranging nine virtually identical objects so 
that they did not lock together into an obvious 
shape took several minutes, and some thought 
was given to the vectors.The ground "window" 
initiated a movement into the group, and the 
final structure has lines of direction pulling 
outward, though not strongly, in three directions. 
Creating disorder that still remains cohesive is 
usually more difficult than establishing order. 




For a story on archeometry, these fragments of 
Roman metal tools embedded in resin blocks 
suggested an ordered arrangement. Nevertheless, 
there are limits to the appeal of precision, and having 
first been placed in a highly regular pattern, several 
of them were then deliberately skewed, to avoid 
what would have been a rather anal composition. 




Arrangements of several points, as we have 
just seen, produce the effect of being joined, 
which leads naturally to the next major group 
of elements in an image: lines. Whereas in 
illustration a line is often the first mark made, in 
photography it occurs less obviously and usually 
by implication. In this respect it is similar to the 
way we actually see the world, where most lines 
are in fact edges. Contrast plays the biggest role in 
defining lines visually; contrast between light and 
shade, between areas of different color, between 
textures, between shapes, and so on. 

As you might expect, the graphic qualities 
of lines are rather stronger than those of points. 
Like the latter, they establish location, a static 
feature, but they also contain the dynamic 
features of direction and movement along their 
length. And, because the frame of a photograph 

is itself constructed of lines, these invite a natural 
comparison of angle and length. 

Lines also have some capacity for expression. 
It is perhaps best not to make too much of 
this, but different forms of line have distinct 
associations. Horizontal lines, for instance, have 
a more placid effect than diagonal lines; a zig-zag 
can be exciting. Strong, definite lines can express 
boldness; thin, curving lines suggest delicacy, 
and so on. However, whereas in abstract art this 
can be used as the very basis for expression, it 
is not realistic to expect to make great use of it 
in photography. These associations, which will 
be described in more detail on the following 
pages, are real enough, but in a photograph the 
subject often overwhelms them. Nevertheless, 
being sensitive to them pays dividends when the 
opportunity arises. 

The horizontal is, in more senses than 
one, the baseline in composition. As already 
described on pages 12-13, there is a distinct 
horizontal component in the way we see. Our 
frame of vision is horizontal, and the eyes scan 
most easily from side to side. Not surprisingly, 
horizontal lines are visually the most comfortable. 
Moreover, the horizon is a fundamental reference 
line — the most familiar of any — and even gravity 
is a reminder that a horizontal surface is a base 
that supports. For all these reasons, horizontal 
lines generally express stability, weight, calm, 
and restfulness. Through their association with 
the horizon they can also suggest distance and 
breadth. Note, though, that such expressive 
qualities usually only become important when 
there is little real information to be had from 
the content of the photograph. 


Even irregular groupings of things become resolved 
with distance into horizontal bands, and eventually 
lines.The horizontal components of this photograph 
of flamingos in Ngorongoro Crater, Kenya exist only 
because of the acute angle of view. 


In a very precise example of how lines are formed by 
contrast, light and shade from a row of trees form 
diminishing bands along the driveway of an English 
estate. Expressively, this helps to give a feeling of 
stability and tranquility to the view; graphically, the 
receding pattern has interest. This recession also 
gives a clue to the abundance of horizontal lines in 
views that span a distance; on a flat surface seen 
from only slightly above, virtually all details merge 
and converge on the horizon. 


This row of steel girders at a Calcutta construction 
site become a dominant horizontal setting for 
the shot of a worker drinking water only through 
viewpoint and focal length. From a lower viewpoint 
they would have merged into an indistinct mass, 
and from a higher viewpoint they would have 
separated. A telephoto lens both compressed the 
perspective and allowed a crop that excluded 
distracting surroundings. 






The vertical is the second primary component of 
the frame, and so is naturally seen in terms of 
alignment with the format and with the sides of 
the picture. A single vertical form understandably 
sits more comfortably in a vertical format than a 
horizontal. A series of verticals, however, acquires 
a horizontal structure, as can be seen from the 
photograph of the leg-rowers opposite; here, a 
horizontal frame actually allows more to be made 
of the series. 

A vertical line is also the main component in 
the main image of a human figure, and of a tree. 
Its direction is the force of gravity, or something 
escaping it. Without the inbuilt associations of a 
supporting base that give a horizontal line much 
of its character, a vertical line usually has more 
of a sense of speed and movement, either up or 
down. Seen as uprights from a level viewpoint, 
vertical forms can, under the right circumstances, 
confront the viewer. Several vertical forms can 
have associations of a barrier, like posts, or a line 
of men facing the camera. To an extent, they 
can express strength and power. On a practical 
level, exact alignment is very important, as it is 
for horizontal lines. In a photograph, both are 
immediately compared by the eye with the 
frame edges, and even the slightest discrepancy 
is immediately noticeable. 

Together, horizontal and vertical lines are 
complementary. They create an equilibrium in 
the sense that their energies are perpendicular 
to each other; each one acts as a stop to the 
other. They can also create a primary sensation 
of balance, because there is an underlying 
association of standing upright, supported on a 
level surface. If used strongly and simply in an 
image, this can produce a solid, satisfying feeling. 


In a classic example of the Gestalt Law of Good 
Continuation, the slightly undulating but distinctly 
vertical line of the palm tree "connects" with 
the profile of the Indian farmer leading his cow 
to water.The resulting top-to-bottom vertical 
line dominates and orders the composition. 


Parallel verticals frequently fit better into a 
horizontal frame, which gives them a greater 
spread — important when there is a need to show 
a quantity, as in this telephoto shot of leg-rowers 
in Shan State, Burma. The long focal length usefully 
compresses perspective. Compare with the similar 
treatment of a single figure on page 163. 


Through its foreshortening effect, a powerful 
telephoto lens — 400 mm efl — converts what 
would otherwise be diminishing perspective into 
a vertical design. As with most images that feature 
dominant lines of one type, it adds interest to have 
some discontinuity, in this case the ragged line of 
the right edge of the street. 






Freed from the need to be aligned exactly in the 
picture frame, diagonal lines have a variety 
of direction denied to horizontals and verticals. 
Practically, this means that in photographs which 
do not depend on a horizon or on some other 
absolute reference, there is an extra element of 
choice: the angle of the line. 

Of all lines, diagonals introduce the most 
dynamism into a picture. They are highly 
active, with an even stronger expression of 
direction and speed than verticals. They bring 
life and activity precisely because they represent 
unresolved tension. If the relative stability and 
strength of horizontals and verticals is due to 
their symbolic associations with gravity (see 
pages 72-75), the tension in looking at a diagonal 
has the same source. It has an unresolved and 
unstable position; in the process of falling, if 
you like. Indeed, structurally most scenes and 
things are composed of horizontals and verticals, 
rather than diagonals, particularly in man-made 
environments. Through the viewfinder, most 

diagonals appear as a result of viewpoint — 
oblique views of horizontal or vertical lines. 
This is very useful indeed, because they are, as 
a result, much more under the control of the 
photographer than are horizontals and verticals. 
The frame edges themselves provide a certain 
amount of contrast. This activating effect is in 
proportion to the angle that the diagonal forms 
with the edges of the frame. The maximum for 
a single diagonal, or parallel set, is 45°, but with 
two or three different diagonals combined, the 
strongest effect is when the relative angles are 
all great without being equal. 

In normal eye-level views, horizontal 
lines that run away form the eye converge 
in a photograph; this is the normal effect 
of perspective. By converging, they become 
diagonals, or at least most of them do. As 
this is entirely familiar, diagonals carry some 
associations of depth and distance, particularly 
if there is more than one and they converge. 
Considerable use can be made of this in 


One solution with a subject 
which has the potential for 
confusion is to impose a simple 
graphic structure. In this example, 
maintenance work on an F4 
aircraft was just such a design 
problem. A corner-to-corner 
diagonal line is frequently quite 
easy to construct, given a wide- 
angle lens and some length to the 
sunset. The arm of the engineer 
here completes the line, and 
the silhouette emphasizes it by 
reducing tones. 


Diagonals appear more dynamic 
when they form a stronger angle 
with the longer side of the frame. 
Parallel diagonals reinforce each 
other; a variety of diagonals gives 
the greatest energy to an image. 




Oblique views of right angles produce zig-zags, a 
chevron effect of multiple diagonals.The angles are 
jointed, so the impression of movement along the 
diagonal is maintained, but with a sharp kink. As 
can be seen from this pair of photographs of rows 
of bathing tents, both taken within moments of 
each other, this type of dynamic effect is different. 
In the diagonal picture, the graphic movement is 
single-minded (the bias of direction is set by the 
walking figures). In the zig-zag version, the change 
of direction produces more internal activity. 





trying to manipulate the sense of depth in an 
image. Including or strengthening diagonals 
in a landscape (often no more than a matter of 
aligning objects or edges) will tend to improve 
the impression of depth; even the arrangement 
of subjects in a still-life can produce, quite 
artificially, a feeling of distance. Related to this 
is movement. A diagonal leads the eye along 
it, more than any other line. This makes it an 
extremely valuable device for encouraging the 
attention to move in certain directions in a 
photograph, something we will consider in 
more detail on page 94. 

These perspective diagonals appear stronger 
through a wide-angle lens, the more so from 
a close viewpoint. However, telephoto lenses 
also have their uses in treating diagonals. By 
giving a selective view, a lens with a long focal 
length can emphasize one distinct part of a 
diagonal. Oblique views from some height 
typically produce the kind of diagonals seen in 
the photograph of the bathing tents (page 77). 
What strengthens these particular images is the 
repetition of diagonal lines; the compressing 
effect that a long lens has on perspective makes 
them appear parallel. A wide-angle lens from 
closer would cause them to converge in the image. 


There is only one significant diagonal line in this 
picture — the railing — yet the photograph is full 
of"diagonality."What creates this is simply the 
perceived movement, the mass of commuters all 
marching in the same direction across London 
Bridge.This is reinforced by the bus and the cyclist 
travelling in the opposite direction, which act as a 
counterpoint. The shot was composed and timed 
for just this opposition. 


In this straightforward use of a convenient, prominent diagona 
line, the intention was to take a shot that showed something of 
the stadium with the added activity of an athlete. The difference 
in scale between the two subjects was a potential problem; 
showing a substantial part of the stadium might reduce the figure 
to insignificance. The solution was to use this diagonal to direct 
attention. The natural direction along the diagonal is downwards, 
and the athlete was allowed to run into position at the foot of it. 
The framing was chosen to give as much length as possible to the 
diagonal. The picture was framed in anticipation, and taken when 
the runner appeared in this position. Placing the ground level right at 
the bottom of the frame gives the maximum space to the diagonal. 


A wide-angle lens close to a long wall produces a predictable diagonal that 
radiates from the vanishing point. In this case, the wall is Hadrian's Wall 
in northern England, the lens 20 mm efl,and the composition chosen to 
introduce some visual drama. A head-on view would have shown this section 
of the Roman wall as little more than an ordinary escarpment. Note that the 
diagonals have been enhanced by the use of a neutral graduated filter, angled 
to darken the sky in alignment with the diagonal line of the top of this wall. 


Much of the dynamic quality of diagonal lines 
comes from the unresolved tension of their 
position between flat and upright. 


Perspective effects are ultimately responsible for most of the 
diagonal lines that appear in photographs.The steepness of 
the angle varies according to the viewpoint. 






So far, we have been concerned only with 
straight lines. Curves have entirely different 
qualities, both graphically and expressively. As 
a line, the unique feature of a curve is that it 
contains a progressive change of direction, and 
so seems to avoid, any direct comparison with 
the horizontal and vertical edges of the frame. 
Many curves are, however, aligned mainly in one 
direction or another, as can be seen from the 
examples shown opposite; in another way, a curve 
can be thought of as a series of straight lines at 
progressively changing angles. For these reasons, 
curves do interact with straight lines in an image. 

The progressive quality of a curve gives it 
a rhythm which straight lines lack (other than 

zig-zags). The sense of movement along it, even 
acceleration, is also greater. For example, if a 
shot of a vehicle is animated by streaking its 
tail lights behind it (with a long exposure), the 
greatest impression of speed would be if these 
were slightly curved. Curved movement like this 
is smooth, and many of the other associations of 
curved lines are to do with being gentle, flowing, 
graceful, and elegant. Curves are inherently 
attractive to most people, particularly when 
they undulate. Just as diagonals have a specific 
character — active and dynamic — and a quality of 
movement, so curves have a character — smooth 
and flowing — and also carry the eye along them. 
They are, therefore, a useful second device in 

controlling the way in which the viewer will 
look at a photograph. 

Curves are, however, harder than diagonals 
to introduce into a picture. While a diagonal is 
usually a straight line of any direction that is 
altered by viewpoint, curves must usually begin 
as real curves. They can be exaggerated by being 
viewed at a more acute angle, but the only optical 
method of actually creating them that is open to 
photographers is to use a fish- eye lens, and this 
simply bends all the lines into curves without 
discrimination. Nevertheless, it is sometimes 
possible to produce a curve by implication; by an 
arrangement of points, as in the photograph of the 
pelicans, or with a number of short lines or edges. 


The upward sweep of a bright Indian sari being 
adjusted by a pilgrim on a boat in the Ganges creates 
a strong curve that acts graphically like a converging 
lens, drawing the attention in towards the center and 
right of the image. 


Although a curve is continuously changing direction, 
it has implied straight-line components, particularly 
at either end. 


A curve can also be seen, at least in part, as a 
section of a circle. This helps to explain the 
enclosing sensation of curves. 




As with any other kind of line, several concentric 
curves reinforce each other.The strong sense of 
movement can be especially felt, even with these 
static rows of crosses at a military cemetery in the 
Philippines, because the rows approach the camera. 

This photograph also demonstrates how a low 
viewpoint, giving an acute angle of view to the lines, 
strengthens the curvature (white represents high 
angle, purple low in the schema). The smaller image 
demonstrates the singular importance of viewpoint. 

■ -aa: 


One method of creating a curve is by aligning other elements. 
In this case, pelicans in flight appear, from the camera position, to 
form a curve, and this becomes the structure of the photograph. 


Curved lines make a more 
substantial contrast with straight 
lines than do the different 
types of straight lines among 
themselves. Here, the contrast is 
used quite gently: the intricate 
curved pattern of oil globules in 
seawater forms a background for 
the diagonal line of baby shrimps. 




This brings us to one of the most valuable 
implied lines that can be used in designing a 
photograph. So strong is our attraction to images 
of the human face that we pay instant attention 
to any face that appears clearly in a photograph. 
In particular, if the person in the photograph is 
looking at something, our eyes naturally follow 
that direction. It is simple, normal curiosity, to 
see where the eyes are looking, and it creates a 
strong direction in the image. Known as eye- 
lines, whenever they occur they are nearly always 
important elements in the structure of the image. 
Eye-lines are an example of the Gestalt Law 
of Good Continuation at work (see page 38), 

but owe their insistence to the high importance 
attached to any image of the face, particularly 
on the eyes (see pages 58-59). While direct eye 
contact between the person photographed and 
the viewer is always the strongest attractant, we 
still want to know what people are looking at, on 
the reasonable grounds that if that something 
is interesting to one person, it might interest us 
too. The gaze "points" us at another element in 
the image or, if it is directed out of the frame — as 
in the image of the spectators on page 141 — it is 
unresolved and creates some doubt in the viewer's 
mind. This is by no means a fault, and can be 
useful in creating ambiguity (see pages 140-143). 


The painting of the Virgin, for a public celebration 
held in the Philippines, was, of course, already 
positioned to appear to look at the cardinal on 
the stage. To make the most effective use of this 
in the photograph, the painting was placed at the 
extreme edge of the frame, so that the eye-line 
would dominate. In other words, as the eye is 
naturally drawn first to the strong image of the 
Virgin's face, placing this at the edge means that 
there is no distraction on the opposite side of the 
frame.The attention starts at one predictable place 
and moves in one predictable direction. 


Through a combination of design 
elements, this photograph of 
novice monks in a Burmese 
temple is organized to be seen 
in just one way. Although the 
moment for taking the shot 
was very short — just the time 
taken for the gesture and 
glance of the second boy — there 
was plenty of time to prepare 
and to anticipate most of the 
possibilities, including the fact 
that the gilded statue in the 
background could betaken as 
looking at the foreground. The 
actual coincidence of expression 
of the face of the two boys 
was, of course, unplanned, but 
anticipation made it easy to 
recognize the potential and 
shoot in time. The result is a 
very structured image, due to 
the way in which the three 
eye-lines combine to project 
outward to the viewer. 




In photographic composition, triangles are the 
most useful shapes, for a number of reasons. 
They are common, partly because they are simple 
to construct or imply (they need only three 
points for the apices, and these do not need to 
be in any particular arrangement) and partly 
because of convergence — the natural graphic 
effects of perspective make convergent diagonals 
very common in photography, particularly with 
wide-angle lenses. They are also the most basic 
of all geometric shapes, having the least number 
of sides. Moreover, they have the interesting 
combination of being both dynamic, because of 
the diagonals and corners, and stable — provided 
that one side is a level base. 

The triangle is such an inherently strong 
shape that it appears easily to the eye. With lines, 
often two are sufficient; the third can be assumed, 
or else an appropriate frame edge can be taken 
as one side. As for points, any three prominent 
centers of interest will do, particularly if they 
are similar in content, tone, size, or some other 
quality. Unlike rectangles and circles, both of 
which need to have their principal components in 
an exact order, triangles can be formed in almost 
any configuration. The only arrangement of three 
points that does not create a triangle is a straight 
row. For example, a portrait of three people will 
almost inevitably contain a triangle, with each 
face an apex. 

The natural tendency of linear perspective is 
for lines to converge on a vanishing point in the 
distance, and form two sides of a triangle. It the 
camera is level, the prime apex of the triangle will 
be pointing more or less horizontally (you could 
think of the triangle formed by a receding row 
of houses as lying on its side, with the apex on 
the horizon and the base the nearest upright to 
the camera). If the camera were pointing upward 
instead, at a building, trees, or any other group of 
vertical lines, the apex would be at the top of the 
picture, and the base level at the bottom. This is 
also the most stable configuration of a triangle. 

The sense of stability inherent in many 
triangles comes from structural association; it 


/ \ 


Any arrangement of three objects (except in 
a straight line) produces an implied triangle. 


An upward-tilted view with a wide-angle 
lens creates a triangle by convergence. 


Convergence caused by linear perspective, 
particularly a wide-angle lens, creates at least 
two sides of a triangle. Vertical surfaces which 
recede to the horizon create triangles that 
appear to lie on one side.The principal apex 
is directed towards the vanishing point. 


This sequence of frames illustrates well how an 
implied triangular structure can strengthen the 
organisation and dynamics of an image. The setting 
is the malaria ward of a hospital in Sudan, where 
patients have to share beds. A wide-angle lens was 
chosen to show maximum information. While the 
initial two shots were satisfactory, the movement 
of the doctor, and in particular his stretching gesture, 
suddenly organised the entire image. A moment 
later, this strong geometry weakened. 




is the shape of a pyramid, or of two buttresses 
leaning in towards each other. Therefore, 
arranging three objects so that two form a base 
and the third an apex above creates a stable form, 
and this association is carried into the image. It is 
the classic three-figure shot, and in photography 
that allows the subjects to be manipulated, it is 
a standard and usually successful technique to 
reposition things in this way. The two diagonals 
in such a triangle help it to escape the heaviness 
of a square or rectangular arrangement. 

The reverse configuration, with the base at the 
top of the picture and the apex at the bottom, is 
an equally useful shape to introduce into a design. 
It has different association: less stable, more 
aggressive, and containing more movement. The 
apex points more obviously, probably because it 
appears to face the camera and viewer, and there 
is the kind of tension that you would expect from 
a shape that symbolizes extremely precarious 
balance. A special use for inverted triangles in 
design occurs in still life and other group pictures 
where objects are of different sizes yet need to be 
unified in one shot — placing the smallest nearest 
the camera, at the apex of the triangle, and the 
rest of the objects behind. A wide-angle lens, used 
from a raised position looking slightly down, 
will emphasize the proportions of an inverted 
triangle, just as a wide-angle lens pointing up 
will create upward- converging verticals. 

Under what circumstances is it useful to try 
to impose a triangular structure? It is important 
to see implied triangles as one of a few devices for 
bringing order to an image, or of arranging the 
things being photographed. The occasions when 
such organization is needed are usually those 
when there is a need for clarity. This is common 
in still-life photography and in various forms of 
reportage when the most important thing is to 
make a clear representation of something, often 
in a visually untidy setting. As this is a common 
condition in professional photography, the idea 
of structuring an image in a simple graphic 
arrangement is principally professional. 


Three-figure shots usually contain the potential for 
a triangular structure. Here it has been deliberately 
strengthened by the viewpoint, which not only 
shows a triangular relationship in the heads, but a 
triangle in the outline of three figures. 


A triangle with its apex at the front of the picture 
makes a useful configuration, not only for groups of 
objects as in a still-life, but also to focus attention 
more strongly on the apex, when the converging 
sides draw the eye toward this foreground point. 
In this instance, the device was chosen because the 
subject, the rice, was visually bland. 




In itself, the arrangement of the 
two seated figures only mildly 
suggests a triangular shape, 
but a standing shot, looking 
down with a 20 mm lens, 
strengthens the structures 
by convergence. 



After the frequency of triangular structure, the 
other basic shapes — circles and rectangles — 
tend to be rarer in photography and so less of an 
option in composition. As with triangles, they 
are more interesting when implied — suggesting a 
shape rather than being a pre-formed one. 

Circles have a special place in composition. 
Unlike triangles and lines, they are not so easy to 
imply, because they need to be almost complete 
and have a very precise, recognizable shape. 
Nevertheless, they do occur often, both man-made 
and naturally. In nature, radial growth, as you 
would find in a flower head or a bubble, tends to 
make a circle. Circles are valuable in composing 
a picture because they have an enclosing effect. 
They "contain" things placed within them, and 
they draw the eye inward, and for this reason they 
are useful in arranged photographs, particularly 
still-life, when the photographer sets out to 
create a composition from scratch. The effect of 
focusing the viewer's attention can be so strong as 
to make the surroundings visually less important, 
so circles should be used with caution. There is 
some slight implication of movement around the 
circumference, because of associations of rotation. 

Derivatives of circles are ellipses, other 
flexing, cyclic shapes, and more or less any 
squat shape made up of curves rather than lines 
and corners. Ellipses represent a special case in 
photography, because this is the shape that a real 
circle projects onto the film when seen from an 
angle. To an extent, the eye resolves ellipses into 
assumed circles. 

Rectangles abound in man-made structures, 
more rarely in nature, and are useful in 
composition in that they are the easiest form for 
subdividing the frame. Indeed, the shape that 
bears the closest correspondence to the frame 
of a photograph is a rectangle. A high degree of 
precision is called for, as the most usual way of 
arranging rectangular shapes in a frame is to align 
them with the horizontals and verticals of the 
frame itself. Misalignments are then easy to spot, 
and easy to correct digitally. In fact, correcting 
distortions due to lens design and to tilting is 

standard digital post-production procedure, as 
for example in Photoshop's Filter > Distort > 
Lens Correction facility. 

Rectangles have associations of gravity, 
solidity, precision, and sharp limitation, a result 
of their connotations with the two kinds of 
lines — vertical and horizontal — that compose 
them. They tend to be static, unyielding, and 
formal. As the perfect form of the rectangle, the 
square exhibits these qualities the most strongly. 
For a rectangular form to appear rectangular in 
the picture, it must be photographed square-on 
and level. Angled views and wide-angle lenses 
tend to distort rectangles into trapezoids. Hence, 
the manner of shooting that uses rectangular 
structures is itself usually formal and considered. 


This is an example from a book which was 
photographed entirely with a motif of rectangular 
shapes. The subject is Shaker architecture and 
crafts, and the severe, functional nature of the 
material suggested an appropriate treatment. 
The defined regularity of rectangles makes them 
especially adaptable to design that stresses 
balance and proportion. 


The subject is a fairly dense oak forest, but the design 
problem is its lack of structure.The solution here was 
to find one view with a little potential structure (the 
prominent curving branch), and then exaggerate this 
by using a full-frame fish-eye lens. Although almost 
fully corrected in regular lenses, curvilinear distortion 
is deliberately maintained in fish-eye lenses. All lines 
except radial ones are curved: the farther from the 
center, the more extreme the curve. 







This arrangement of a variety of different types of 
pearls was for a magazine cover, and so not only had 
to be clear in displaying the pearls but also had to be 
attractive and simple, with room at the top for the 
masthead. The problem was that several pearls needed 
to be shown, too many to arrange in a single group. 
The solution was to split them up into three groups 
yet tie them together visually in such a way that the 
arrangement looked fairly natural and the eye could 
move smoothly around the picture. 

The key to the picture's success is in the choice 
of oyster shells of different species, with the iridescent 
coloring typical of mother of pearl. Specifically, the 
two principal shells provide circular enclosures, one 
fitting into the curve of the other. The 15 mm South Sea 
pearl at right is large enough to be its own circle, and 
the three circles are linked in two ways-first by their 
triangular relationship, and also by the sinuous 
S-curve, which helps to direct the eye between them. 

As in any still-life, the arrangement is built up 
carefully, with the camera locked in position. The main 
group was assembled in the large shell first, then a 
smaller group was added to the shell below, and some 
additions made to the first group. Finally, the large 
pearl was placed against a darker shell for contrast. 

The principal design structures are the circles, the 
two largest formed by the shells. In turn, these three 
circles are inevitably linked into a triangular pattern. 
Finally, the arrangement of the background deliberately 
makes use of the reverse curve of the large shell to 
create an S-shaped curve. 






We have seen how readily the eye follows a 
line, or even the suggestion of one. This 
tendency is the most important single device 
available to a photographer in designing an image 
so that it will be looked at in a certain way. In 
principle at least, if you can balance a picture so 
that the attention is first taken by one predictable 
point, and then provide a line which suggests 
movement in one direction, you will have 
provided a route for the eye. Vectors are graphic 
elements (or combinations) that have movement, 
and so impart a dynamic quality to the image. 
Kinetics is another term sometimes used. 

The strongest lines that can be used in this 
way are those with the clearest sense of direction 
and movement. Diagonals, therefore, are 
particularly useful, and if there are two or more, 
and they converge, so much the better. Curves 
also have feeling of movement, and on occasion 
even of speed and acceleration. However, the 
opportunities for using real lines are limited by 
the scene, naturally enough, and they are often 
not available when you want them. Implied lines 
are not as definite and obvious, but can at least be 
created by the photographer, using viewpoint and 
lens to make alignments. These alignments may 

be of points, or of different short lines, such as 
the edges of shadows. 

Another device is any representation of 
movement. The image of a person walking 
contains a suggestion of direction, and this has 
momentum. The eye has a tendency to move a 
little ahead of the person, in the direction that is 
being taken. The same is true of any object that is 
obviously in movement, such as falling or flying. 
Because movement in photographs is frozen, even 
the direction in which an object is facing imparts 
a slight suggestion of movement; it needs to be 
recognizable, as in the case of a car, for example. 




The central subject of this scene, 
the propeller of a large ship in dry 
dock, suggests the structure of the 
picture, a spiral composed of three 
principal curved lines. However, 
the necessary reinforcement comes 
from the three men working on 
the propeller. To complete the 
image, the three men needed to be 
evenly spaced, visible, and facing 
in directions that helped to confirm 
the direction of the spirals. Once the 
viewpoint had been selected, the 
only thing to do was to wait until 
the appropriate moment. The less 
dynamic shots are included to 
demonstrate the lesser effect. 




This is an arranged shot, intended to show the 
equipment and procedure for seeding a pearl oyster. 
It was decided that the style of the photograph 
would be clean, spare, and clinical, in keeping with 
the idea that the process is rather like a surgical 
operation. The ingredients needed were the oyster, 
the special surgical tools, the seed (actually a small 
sphere), and, of course, the action of inserting it. 
The seed is the central element, but also the 
smallest, hence the graphic structure is designed to 
focus attention on it. The basic form is three lines 

converging on the seed so that, despite the bulk 
of the oyster as it appears in silhouette, the seed is 
very much the center of attention. The angle of the 
lines was chosen so as not to be symmetrical, which 
would have been a little predictable and dull. 

The instruments on the right were fanned to 
avoid every line pointing severely at the center, and 
the open mouth of the oyster introduces a sense of 
movement. The eye moves to the seed at the center, 
and then a little down and left to the oyster. The 
action is made clear by the lines. 




Here, the subject is food: a Thai dish and its various 
accompaniments. Partly because this type of Asian 
cooking tastes better than it looks in detail, and partly 
because an attractive location was available, it was 
decided to shoot it in an outdoor setting. 

Once this decision had been made, the important 
issue was the balance of attention. There is no point 
in going to the trouble of arranging a good location 
if the audience cannot see enough of it to get some 
atmosphere. On the other hand, the subject is the 
food. Fortunately, as already explained, there was no 
compelling reason to show the food in great detail. 
It was decided that the food would occupy about 
one third of the frame, and that the structure would 
attempt to move the eye between the background and 
the food, so both would receive proper attention. 

The result was a variety of lines and shapes. The 
food was placed at the bottom of a vertical frame, 
which alone will encourage the eye to drift down. The 
circular tables concentrate attention locally inward. 
The trunk of the palm gives a major downward thrust 
from the setting to the food, and this is picked up by 
the diagonal shadow. The curve of the tables then 
moves, as shown in the (central) diagram below, 
back up to the fields beyond. The figure of the girl is 
included for atmosphere, but she stoops to lower the 
baskets for two reasons: the way she faces imparts a 
movement downward, as does the (assumed) eye-line, 
without being too contrived. 

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Sharp focus is such an accepted standard 
in photography that it is rarely treated as 
anything other than a way of producing a "correct" 
image, just like inserting the memory card before 
shooting and other obvious essentials. Only 
occasionally does it occur to most people to vary 
the focus for the effect it has on the design. Yet, 
under the right circumstances, this can be effective. 

The question of where to focus seldom 
arises, because the normal practice of making 
a photograph is first to decide what the subject 
should be and then to aim the camera. Natural 
enough, certainly, and the usual focus problems 
are those of accuracy rather than of selection. 
Under normal circumstances, the point to 
be focused on — the eyes in a face, or a figure 
standing in front of a background — presents 
itself without an alternative. 

Certain situations, however, do offer a choice, 
and this lies mainly in how you define the image. 
When photographing a group of objects, should 
they all appear in sharp focus? Would it be more 
effective if just one or a few were sharp and the rest 
progressively soft? If so, which ones should be in 
focus and which not? Moreover, there might not 
necessarily be such a choice of deep or shallow 
focus. If the light level is low for the combination 
of film and lens, it may only be possible to have 
one zone of the image in focus, and in this case 
you will be forced into a selective decision. 

Whatever the reasons, never underestimate 
the visual power of focus. The fact that sharpness 
is the virtually unquestioned standard is enough 
to show that whatever is focused on becomes the 
de facto point of attention. Deliberate misuse — 
or rather, unexpected use — works extremely 
well because it flouts established procedure. 

If you are using focus in an expected way, 
it is important to appreciate its different uses 
with different focal lengths. Even without any 
knowledge of the techniques of photography, 
most people looking at a photograph are familiar 
with the way the focus is normally distributed. 
With a telephoto lens, the depth of field is shallow, 
and there is typically a range of focus that can be 

seen in one photograph, from soft to sharp. As 
the sharp area is expected to coincide with the 
main point of interest — where the eye is expected 
finally to rest — the range of focus contains a sense 
of direction from unsharp to sharp. This is not 
nearly such a strong inducement to the eye as the 
lines of view that we have just looked at, but it 
works nevertheless. What is important is that it 
works through the familiarity of the viewer with 
the way his or her own eyes will focus on 
an object. 


With a 600 mm lens focused on the distance, depth 
of field in this shot of Lake Magadi in Ngorongoro 
Crater, Tanzania is very shallow. From a slightly 
elevated viewpoint (the roof of a vehicle), the focus 
is progressive, leading the eye rapidly upward to the 
point of focus, where a hyena has taken a flamingo. 
Placing this main subject of interest high in the 
frame makes the best use of this effect. 

Shorter focal lengths give images with better 
depth of field than do longer focal lengths, and we 
are accustomed to seeing wide-angle views that 
are sharp throughout. With a typical telephoto 
image, loss of focus either in the background or 
foreground is such a familiar condition that we 
expect it. With a wide-angle view, on the other 
hand, out-of- focus areas are not expected, and 
when this happens with a fast wide-angle lens 
used at maximum aperture on a deep subject, 
it can easily look in some way wrong. 



Shallow depth of field is typical 
of macro images — indeed, 
virtually unavoidable. The 
extreme blurring on either side 
of the point of focus creates a 
wash of greens and yellows, so 
that the main subject becomes 
the pure colors of Spring. 


The great value of limited focus is that it 
concentrates attention on a specific part of the 
image of the photographer's choosing, and all 
works well provided that the out-of-focus elements 
remain intelligible. In this case, a scribe working 
in a scriptorium, the purpose of the technique was 
to register the calligraphy, despite its relatively 
small size in the frame.The selective focus is 
particularly extreme here through the use of a 
4X5-inch view camera with the lens panel tilted 
to give the minimum depth of field, with the 
lens at full aperture. 






The range from sharp to unsharp in 
photography is not confined to focus. It also 
occurs in a different form as motion blur. As 
users of digital filters in Photoshop and other 
applications know, there are also different kinds 
of motion blur, and each has its own character 
and sense. There is the jerky blur from camera 
shake, usually producing ghosted double edges. 
There is the complex streaking from a subject that 
moves during the exposure, and the more linear 
one from panning the camera or shooting from 
a moving vehicle. There are many combinations 
and permutations, such as panning plus 

independent subject movement (as in the seagull 
example on page 97), and the now familiar 
rear- curtain shutter technique in which motion 
streaking from a long exposure is crisply finished 
off with a sharp flash image superimposed. 

As on pages 94-95, which deal with focus, here 
I'm concerned with uses for unsharpness rather 
than ways of avoiding it. Convention suggests 
that motion blur is a fault, but this very much 
depends on the effect that the photographer is 
looking for. As an expressive element it can work 
very well, and there are strong arguments against 
being constantly fixated on sharpness. Henri 

Cartier-Bresson railed against what he called "an 
insatiable craving for sharpness of images. Is this 
the passion of an obsession? Or do these people 
hope, by this trompe Vceil [a realist art school] 
technique, to get closer to grips with reality?" 
Motion blur, in the appropriate circumstances, 
can convey movement and actuality, and the 
element of uncertainty in capturing it with 
slow exposures brings a sense of experiment to 
shooting. Perhaps the most important decision 
is knowing whether to deal with motion in this 
way or to freeze a particular moment in time. 
We will examine the latter on pages 98-99. 


A dimly lit chapel in the Jokhang, Lhasa, shot with 
the camera on a tripod with a half-second shutter 
speed. The movement of people is inevitably blurred, 
but this is acceptable because the setting is sharp. 


A seagull in flight against a dark background, 
photographed with a 400 mm lens at a shutter 
speed of one second, reveals its wing movements 
in a just-recognizable pattern. 






Timing is not only an essential quality in 
taking most photographs, it has a direct effect 
on the actual design of the image. Photographs 
of all except completely static subjects — so the 
majority of photographs — must be timed. To 
take a photograph is to make a picture of an 
event. The event may be brief — a matter of 
milliseconds — or it may be long enough, as in 
the change of daylight over a landscape, that the 
timing is chosen in terms of hours. 

The very word, of course, invokes one of 
photography's most famous expressions, "the 
decisive moment." Henri Cartier- Bresson, the 
consummate photo journalist who applied the 
phrase to photography, took it from the 17th- 
century Cardinal de Retz, who wrote, "II ny a 
rien dans ce monde qui nait un moment decisif" 
("There is nothing in this world without a 
decisive moment") and defined it as follows: 
"Inside movement there is one moment at 
which the elements in motion are in balance. 
Photography must seize upon this moment 
and hold immobile the equilibrium of it." 

This makes such complete sense that it has 
dogged many photographers since, and there 

have been many attempts to argue against it, most 
recently in a post-modernist vein. The American 
photographer Arnold Newman, for example, 
made this not wholly convincing criticism: 
"Every moment is a decisive moment, even if you 
have to wait a week for it.... It's a good phrase, 
like all simplistic catchphrases, that really gets 
students questioning their own way of working. 
The real problem is that so often they think, 
'Well, if it's the decisive moment, that's what 
I'm looking for.' What they should be looking 
for is photographs, not the decisive moment. 
If it takes an hour, two hours, a week, or two 
seconds, or one-twentieth of a second — there's 
no such thing as only one right time. There are 
many moments. Sometimes one person will 
take a photograph one moment; another person 
will take a photograph the other moment. One 
may not be better, they'll just be different." 

Newman's view is full of common sense, 
but also compromise, and is in effect making an 
excuse for the less-good moments. Photography, 
as any art, plays to an audience and is judged. 
Some images, and therefore some moments, are 
indeed considered to be more telling than others, 


Certain kinds of action allow anticipation, in 
this case a worker shovelling salt into mounds. 
After seeing this several times, I chose this 
moment, with a load of salt suspended in the 
air, taking a low camera position so that it 
would show clearly. 

and when the person doing the evaluating is 
the photographer, the judgement is even more 
critical. I think the real problem is that Henri 
Cartier-Bresson was a hard act to follow, and that 
good reportage photography that goes for the 
decisive moment is a relatively uncommon skill. 

Whatever the action, whether it is a person 
walking through the scene or clouds gathering 
over a mountain, it will certainly have to move 
across the frame. The action, therefore, inevitably 
affects the design of the picture, because it alters 
the balance. Take, for example, a scene in front 
of which someone is about to pass. Before this 
happens, the composition that suggests itself 
is likely to be different from the one including 
the person. Anticipating the changed dynamic 
is always vital. It may seem obvious, but the 
natural reaction in any photographic situation 
is to follow movement and to make what seems 
intuitively to be the most satisfying composition 
at any moment. If, however, an image is planned 
in advance, it is important to imagine the result 
when everything will be in place. Then, it is 
usually easier to frame the view as it will be and 
wait for that movement to pass into the frame. 


In this scene, of rice terraces in Bali, landscape is the 
subject, but will clearly be enhanced by the farmer 
being in a clear, appropriate position. The situation 
was fairly simple to plan in advance.The ideal position 
for the man planting rice was felt to be at the far 


In this scene of itinerant acrobats in an Indian town, 
it is obvious that the girl is about to be tossed in the 
air, but how far? There may not be a second chance 
for the reason that this is India, and as soon as the 
camera is noticed there are likely to be passers-by 
staring at it. The scene is first framed approximately 
and then, as the girl is thrown upward, the camera 
is panned upward to follow.The assumption is that 
at the peak, the image of the girl will clear the top of 
the buildings, and this does, in fact, happen, though 
there is time only for one frame. The shutter speed 
of 1/250 sec is enough to freeze the movement. 

left, to occupy the brightest part of the flooded rice 
terrace and so be clearly visible.The first shot, with 
the man in a less satisfactory position farther away 
was taken for safety. In the event, the man moved 
as anticipated, back to the baskets at lower left. 






As the image in photography is formed 
optically, so the choice of lens is an essential 
part of the design process. The choice of focal 
length does much more than alter the coverage 
of a scene. Focal length determines much of the 
geometry of the image, and can deeply affect its 
character also. In addition there are some special 
optical constructions, especially fish-eyes and 
shift lenses, which will also change the shape of 
things in the photograph. 

Although all that varies with a change of focal 
length is the angle of view, this has pronounced 
effects on the linear structure of an image, on 
the perception of depth, on size relationships, 
and on more expressive, less literal qualities of 
vision. Focal length can, for example, affect the 
involvement of a viewer in the scene, so that a 
telephoto lens tends to distance a subject, while a 
wide-angle lens will draw the viewer into the scene. 

The reference standard is the focal length that 
gives approximately the same angle of view as we 
have ourselves. Only approximation is possible, 
because human vision and lens imagery are quite 
different. We see by scanning, and do not have an 
exactly delineated frame of view. Nevertheless, for 
a 35mm camera, a focal length of around 40 to 
50mm gives roughly the same impression. 

Wide-angle lenses have shorter focal lengths 
and the angle of view is directly proportional 
to the focal length. They affect the structure 
of the image in three main ways. They change 
the apparent perspective and so the perception 
of depth; they have a tendency to produce 
diagonals (real and implied) and consequently 
dynamic tension; and they induce a subjective 
viewpoint, drawing the viewer into the scene. The 
perspective effect depends very much on the way 
the lens is used, specifically the viewpoint. Used 
from the edge of a clifftop or the top of a tall 
building, with no foreground at all in the picture, 
there is virtually no effect on the perspective; just 
a wider angle of view. However, used with a full 
scale of distance, from close to the camera all the 
way to the horizon, a wide-angle lens will give 
an impressive sense of depth, as in the example 

opposite. (See pages 52-57 for more on the 
techniques of enhancing depth perception.) 

The diagonalization of lines is linked to this 
effect on apparent perspective. The angle of view 
is great, so more of the lines that converge on 
the scene's vanishing points are visible, and these 
are usually diagonal. Moreover, the correction of 
barrel distortion in the construction of a normal 
wide-angle lens results in rectilinear distortion, 
a radial stretching that is strongest away from 
the center of the frame. A circular object, for 
example, is stretched to appear as an oval in the 
corner of the frame. 

Wide-angle lenses tend to be involving for 
the viewer because, if used as shown here and 
reproduced large enough, they pull the viewer 
into the scene. The foreground is obviously 
close and the stretching toward the edges and 
corners wraps the image around the viewer. 
In other words, the viewer is made aware that 
the scene extends beyond the frame, and this is 
a style widely used in photojournalism — fast, 
loosely structured, and involving. The things 
photographed are mostly people and movement. 
In the cinema, the equivalent style is known 
as subjective camera, and its characteristics 
are all the qualities you would associate with 
participating in an event. This is eye-level SLR 
photography, using wide-angle or standard lenses 
(never a telephoto, which gives a cooler, more 
distanced character to the image). At its most 
effective, the framing includes close foreground, 
and truncates figures and faces at the edges; this 
seemingly imperfect cropping extends the scene 
at the sides, giving the viewer the impression that 
it wraps around. Imperfections in framing and 
depth of field can help to give a slightly rough- 
edged quality which suggest the photograph had 
to be taken quickly, without time to compose 
carefully. Note, however, that photographs taken 
by experienced photo journalists are usually well 
composed, even under stress. 

On the other side of the standard lens is the 
telephoto (actually a construction of long focus 
lens, but now the most commonly used term), 


This pair of photographs, of the same subject but 
from different distances, illustrates the principal 
characteristics of wide-angle and telephoto lenses. 
The first picture was taken with a 20mm lens, 
the second with a 400mm lens. The reference for 
both pictures is the width of this building. In both 
photographs it occupies half the frame width. 

• Size relationships exaggerated; the building 
behind appears much smaller. 

• Diagonal lines prominent. 

• Angular coverage greater. 

• Slight upward camera angle causes 
convergence of vertical lines. 

• Lens line structure: mainly diagonal. 

• Lens plane structure: deep, angled. 


• Small angle of coverage. 

• Horizontal and vertical lines more prominent 
than diagonals. 

• Size relationships altered by compression; 
building behind appears relatively larger. 

• Although the camera is still slightly lower 
than the buildings, greater distance needs 
smaller upward tilt and there is virtually 
no convergence. 

• Lens line structure: mainly horizontal and 

• Lens plane structure: flat, close. 



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and it too has various effects on the structure 
of the image. It reduces the impression of depth 
by compressing the planes of the image; it gives 
a selective view, and so can be used to pick out 
precise graphic structures; it generally simplifies 
the linear structure of an image, with a tendency 
towards horizontals and verticals; it facilitates 
juxtaposing two or more objects; and it creates 
a more objective, cooler way of seeing things, 
distancing the viewer from the subject (as the 
photographer is distanced when shooting) . 

The compression effect is valuable because 
it is a different way of seeing things (the unusual 

can be attractive for its own sake), and also 
because it makes it possible to compose in a 
two-dimensional way, with a set of planes rather 
than a completely realistic sense of depth — with 
obvious comparisons to traditional Chinese 
and Japanese painting. A specific practical use is 
to give some height to an oblique view of level 
ground. With a standard lens, the acute angle of 
view tends to interfere; a telephoto lens from a 
distance gives the impression of tilting the surface 
upwards, as the photograph on page 105 shows. 

The selectivity from the narrow angle of 
view makes it possible to eliminate distracting or 

unbalancing elements. Precise balance is also often 
easier, needing only a slight change in the camera 
angle; the arrangement of areas of tone or color 
can be altered without changing the perspective. 
For the same reason, the direction of lines tends 
to be more consistent. Whereas a wide-angle lens 
used close pulls lines into a variety of diagonals, a 
telephoto leaves parallel lines and right angles as 
they are. Expressively, this often makes for a more 
static, less dynamic character. 

Juxtaposition is a major compositional use 
of telephoto lenses (see pages 178-179). This can 
be done with any lens simply by changing the 




Two perspective effects are combined here by 
a 2omm lens: linear perspective from the lines 
that converge on the horizon, and diminishing 
perspective from the apparently similar shapes. 


With the appropriate camera angle, a 
wide-angle lens produces strong diagonals, 
particularly if the foreground is included. 



viewpoint or by moving one of the objects, but 
only a telephoto lens allows it to be done without 
major changes to the rest of the image. Moreover, 
when the two things are a distance apart, the 
compression effect of a telephoto lens helps to 
bring them together. 

Finally, the way that a telephoto lens is 
normally used — from a distance — communicates 
itself to the viewer and leaves an objective, less 
involved impression. There is a major difference 
in visual character between shooting within a 
situation with a wide-angle lens and an across- 
the-street view away from the subject. 

Certain other designs of lens, apart from 
variations in focal length, alter the shape of the 
image. Their intended uses are specialized, but 
enable the image to be stretched or curved in 
various ways. One such is the fish-eye, of which 
there are two varieties, circular and full-frame. 
Both have an extreme angle of view, 180° or 
more, but in the full-frame version, the projected 
circle is slightly larger that the normal rectangular 
SLR frame. The pronounced curvature is highly 
abnormal, and at best it has only occasional use. 
Little subtlety is possible with this type of lens, 
unless the subject lacks obvious straight lines 
(such as in the forest photograph on page 88). 

Another way of changing the image structure 
is by tilting the lens or camera back, or both — a 
procedure relatively common in view camera 
photography. Tilting the lens tilts the plane of 
sharp focus, so that, even at maximum aperture, 
the sharpness in an image can be distributed 
more or less at will. Tilting the sensor or film also 
controls the sharpness distribution, but distorts the 
image, stretching it progressively in the direction in 
which the sensor or film is tilted. The example of 
the raindrops here shows how this works. 

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By tilting either the lens or the back of the camera (the latter only possible 
with specialist cameras), the plane of sharp focus can be tilted from 
its normal vertical position facing the camera. In this example, a close 
view of raindrops, front-to-back sharpness was possible (depth-of-field 
adjustment by means of the aperture would not have been sufficient). 




One of the distinctive visual 
impressions of a telephoto 
distant view is as if the planes 
of the subject have been tilted 
upward to face the camera. 


A wide-angle lens used close into a crowd scene 
gives the sense of being in the thick of things that 
is typical of subjective camera shots.Truncation and 
loss of focus at the sides and extreme foreground 
help this impression of being inside the view. 




In the same way that focus is most commonly 
used in a standardized way, to produce a kind 
of technical accuracy in a photograph, exposure is 
often also assumed to have a "correct" role. I should 
stress that this is how it is seen conventionally, 
not how it can or ought to be used. Deciding 
on the right exposure involves both technical 
considerations and judgement. From the technical 
side of things, the upper and lower limits of 
exposure are set first by what is visible, second by 
the expected appearance. In other words, part of 
the task of the exposure setting is to normalize the 
view — to approximate how we see the real scene. 

The conventions of exposure have much 
in common with those of focus. The eye has a 
tendency to move towards the areas of "normal" 
exposure, particularly if these are bright. Higher 

contrast in a scene, therefore, is likely to direct 
attention from shadow to light, while lower 
contrast allows the eye to wander across the 
frame, as the two versions of the hills at sunrise 
show. A variation of this is the radial difference in 
brightness due to vignetting, quite common with 
wide-angle lenses, because their typical design 
allows less light to reach the edges than the center. 
In color, exposure can have a critical effect on 
saturation, depending on the process. Kodachrome 
film, first produced in 1935, achieved prominence 
in professional photography from the 1950s 
onward when it was used by widely reproduced 
photographers such as Ernst Haas and Art Kane. 
Its unique technology favored underexposure to 
give rich, saturated colors, but it was intolerant 
of overexposure. This initiated the strategy of 

exposing for the highlights that has dominated 
color photography, more or less, ever since — 
with particular significance in digital capture. 

Two dominant features of exposure in 
photography that could be considered graphic 
elements in their own right are silhouette and 
flare, and we'll return to these at the end of the 
book when we consider the changing syntax of 
photography. Exposing for the highlights is a 
precondition for silhouette, in which the complete 
absence of detail in the unlit foreground shape 
leads to a technique of choosing orientation, 
viewpoint, and timing to communicate by means 
of outline only. On the opposite side of the 
exposure scale is flare, which can take many forms, 
but the key one for photographic composition is 
an intense glow with diffuse edges. 


Exposure can narrow or broaden the attention in a 
picture if there are two distinct areas of brightness, 
as in this single digital image of the early morning 
sun striking the spur of a Welsh mountain through 
the clouds. There are two interpretations, meaning 
two ways of processing the Raw image file in this 

digital image. Automatic optimization opens up 
the shadows, with the result that the eye slides 
away from the sunlit area to the rest of the 
scene. The exposure has thus helped to radiate 
the attention outward. Increasing the contrast 
and lowering the exposure, on the other hand, 

concentrates attention on the briefly lit edge, 
makes this the subject, and increases the 
drama of the lighting. It also heightens the 
sense of timing; we are conscious that, in the 
first moments of the day, the sun is picking 
out one small area, just for an instant. 


Radial darkening toward the corners in this 
wide-angle photograph of the space between 
two Shaker buildings in Maine focuses attention 
inward, reinforcing the strong diagonals. 


The widely used color technique of exposing to 
hold the highlights began with Kodachrome film. 
Under-exposed mid-dark tones retain rich saturation, 
and this can be opened up during repro or in digital 
post-production. It is essential not to overexpose 
significant highlights, and in a digital camera the 
highlight warning display is a crucial help. 


Lens flare is a graphic entity in its own right, and 
whether considered a fault or a contribution to the 
image depends entirely on the photographer's taste 
and choice. This aerial view of the Orinoco River in 
Venezuela could have been shot without the flare 
streaks from the sun by simply shielding the lens. 
Instead, they are used to help unite the composition 
and give the sense of blinding sunlight. 







Another perspective on composition in 
photography is that of the distribution 
of tones and colors. This is intimately 
connected with exposure and with the 
ways in which this is later interpreted — 
traditionally in the darkroom during 
printing and development, now in digital 
post-production when the image file is 
optimized and adjusted. This interconnects 
with the handling of graphic elements that 
we examined in the previous chapter — 
indeed, the two are inseparable. A point 
functions in a photograph because it has a 
tonal or color contrast with its background. 
Lines and shapes also have an effect in 
proportion to how distinct they are, and 
ultimately this comes down to tonal and/or 
color relationships. These are the spectral 
components of design. 

Tone and color are related yet remain 
distinct, in a complex inter-relationship. 
One of the less obvious benefits of 
digital photography is that the process of 
optimizing images on the computer has 
taught more people about the science 
of imaging than would ever have been 

possible without digital technology. Most 
serious photographers are now thoroughly 
familiar with what used to be considered 
arcane features such as histograms, curve 
adjustments, black points, and white points. 
Adjusting images with Levels, Curves, and 
Hue-Saturation-Brightness sliders makes 
it perfectly obvious how closely connected 
are tone and color. 

At the same time, color has its own 
influences on our perception, and its multi- 
layered complexity has been recognized 
from the beginnings of art. There are color 
optical effects like successive contrast that 
work independently of taste, culture, and 
experience, but there are also emotional 
and contextual effects that, while not 
completely understood, are nevertheless 
very powerful. Interestingly enough, 
photography itself has helped to promote 
this distinction between tone and color 
through its historical development. 

Color arrived relatively late on the 
photographic scene — in terms of mass use 
only in the 1960s — and was not universally 
welcomed.lt was not only traditionalist 

photographers who were suspicious 
(naturally enough, because it challenged 
their hard-won skills and ways of seeing), 
but also critics and some philosophers, a 
number of whom considered it tainted 
with the commercialism of advertising 
and selling products. 

Nevertheless, color photography was 
embraced by many professionals and 
artists,and of course by the public. The 
influential Swiss photographer Ernst Haas, 
who moved to the United States in 1951, 
identified his love of color in photography 
with the European wartime experience: 
"I was longing for it, needed it, I was ready 
for it. I wanted to celebrate in color the new 
times, filled with new hope." As we will see, 
the interpretation of color has since then 
been the subject of ongoing experiment 
and argument. 

Black and white, meanwhile, remains 
vigorously healthy, and far from succumbing 
to color photography, continues to be used 
with enthusiasm, not just by artists and 
traditionalists but by art directors and 
picture editors in published media. 




Contrast, as we saw at the beginning of 
Chapter 2, underpins composition, and 
one of the most basic forms of contrast is tonal. 
The Italian expression chiaroscuro (literally 
"light/dark") refers specifically to the dramatic 
modeling of subjects in painting by means 
of shafts of light illuminating dark scenes. In 
a more general sense, it conveys the essential 
contrast that establishes tonal relationships. 
Johannes Itten (see pages 34-35) identified it 
as "one of the most expressive and important 
means of composition" in his basic course at 
the Bauhaus art school. It not only controls the 
strength of modeling in an image (and so its 
three- dimensionality), but also the structure of 
an image and which parts draw the attention. 

Whether or not to use the full range of 
tones from pure black to pure white is a basic 
decision, all the more important now in digital 
photography, which offers the histogram and 
levels controls in post-production. Most of the 
information content in photographs is carried 
in the midtones, and a great deal of conventional 

photography works mainly in these "safe" tonal 
areas. Shadows and highlights, however, can 
contribute strongly to the mood and atmosphere 
of a photograph. 

The schematics below show all the possible 
kinds of tonal distribution for a photograph — in 
a sense, the lighting styles. If we ignore color 
for the time being, these variations are defined 
by two axes — contrast and brightness — which 
are immediately familiar to anyone working 
on digital images in Photoshop. Within these 
groupings, there is an infinite variety of ways in 
which the tones can be distributed. Chiaroscuro 
in its limited sense occupies the high-contrast end 
of the scale. The second axis, of overall brightness, 
defines much of the mood of an image. When the 
general expression is dark, favoring shadow tones, 
the image is low key. The opposite, with all the 
tonal modulation taking place in light tones, is 
high key. Plotting one against the other, the range 
of possibilities forms a wedge-shaped pattern, 
because maximum contrast in an image demands 
roughly equal areas of black and white. 

Using these two axes, contrast and brightness 
(contrast and key), as a guide, the choice of 
style for an image depends on three things: the 
characteristics of the scene (dark vegetation, pale 
skin, bright sky, and so on), the way the scene is 
lit, and the photographer's interpretation. The last 
of these is now, through digital post-production, 
more influential than ever. On pages 1 12-113, I've 
taken one image, of elephants under an acacia 
tree, and shown how it can be simply rendered in 
different keys — and how any of these can be valid. 

One interesting feature of key is its different 
appearance between black and white and color, 
specifically that it is more difficult to make high 
key work in color. Whereas high-key black-and- 
white images seem luminous and graphic (with 
the right choice of subject), color images are more 
often interpreted in negative terms, as washed out 
and wrongly exposed. Partly this has to do with 
color photography being more literally connected 
with reality, and partly to do with taste and 
familiarity — the Kodachrome-induced strategy 
of exposing to hold the highlights. 



□ □ r- 


Exposed — as always in this kind 
of picture — for the highlights, 
the chiaroscuro of morning 
sunlight through a window on a 
Chinese opium pillow enhances 
by contrast the impression of 
rich, saturated color. 


1 10 



An Iban farmer in Borneo resting by a window in the longhouse. 
The extreme contrast makes it difficult at first to make sense of 
the image, and this delay and ambiguity give it its appeal. 


Caustic light patterns like these are formed when light is strongly 
reflected or refracted, and partially focused, onto a diffuse surface 
such as this paper. 

m *0 








The shadows in a high-contrast scene can also reinforce shape and 
pattern within the scene, as in the undulating shadow that picks up 
the curves of the woman's headscarf and the bananas. 


Only the edges of the girl and her fishing line, briefly caught by the 
last rays of the sun, define this image taken on a river bank in Surinam. 
The shadowy forms of the trees behind complete the scene, which is 
all, except for the thin edges, in the lower register of the tonal scale. 


1 1 1 


One image treated in different tonal registers. The 
original was Kodachrome, but after scanning it was 
optimized as a digital file. Low key, by reducing the 
brightness, interprets the scene as glowering and 
stormy, with emphasis on the clouds. High key gives 
an impression of permeating bright light from the 
wide African sky, and is more graphic, with the tree 
and elephants almost floating in limbo. Note that 
the least successful version is high key in color, which 
seems more wrongly exposed than intentional. 








;ht and color 



Color adds a completely different dimension 
to the organization of a photograph, not 
always easy or possible to separate from the other 
dynamics that we have been looking at. The ways 
in which we sense and judge color are in any case 
complex, from the optical to the emotional, and 
the general subject of color in photography is, like 
color in art, a huge one. My earlier book, Color, 
in the Digital Photography Expert series, goes into 
much more detail than is possible here, including 
color theory and management (see bibliography). 
The critical color issue before us in these pages is 
how it can affect a photograph's composition. 
We'll begin with strong colors, because the 
effects and relationships work most strongly with 
these, although the broad range of colors met 

with in front of the camera tend to be muted in 
various ways. The strength of color is determined 
mainly by its saturation, and this is one of the 
three parameters in the color model that is most 
useful for our purposes. One of the side benefits 
of digital photography is that post-production 
in Photoshop and similar applications has made 
most of us familiar with the technical language of 
color. The three most widely used parameters, or 
axes, of color are hue, saturation, and brightness. 
Hue is the quality that gives each color its name, 
and is what most people mean when they use the 
word "color." Blue, yellow, and green, for example, 
are all hues. Saturation is the intensity or purity 
of hue, with the minimum being a completely 
neutral gray, and brightness determines whether 

the hue is dark or light. Another way of looking 
at this is that saturation and brightness are both 
modulations of hue. 

Color effects naturally work most strongly 
when the colors involved are intense, and the 
examples shown on the next few pages favor these 
for clarity. Hue is the essence of color, and in its 
simplest representation, the hues are arranged 
in a circle. In the centuries of thought that 
have gone into color in art, the idea of primary 
colors has been central, and general opinion has 
settled on three — red, yellow, and blue — known 
as painters' primaries (refined to CMY(K) by 
printers). These obviously do not square with 
the three primaries — red, green, and blue — that 
are used in color film, computer monitors, and 

1 14 



The three reflected -light primaries red, yellow and 
blue mix as pigments, inks or dyes on paper and give 
the intermediate colours green, violet and orange, 
and close to black when all three are combined. The 
three transmitted-light primaries red, green and 
blue combine by projection, and they combine quite 
differently, to give cyan, magenta and yellow, with 
white as the result of all three together. 

digital cameras. The core reason is that painters' 
primaries are those of reflected light, on paper or 
canvas, while the RGB familiar to photographers 
are those of transmitted light. The actual red 
and blue of each system differ. Comparing the 
two sets of primaries is not, in any event, a very 
useful exercise, because one deals mainly with the 
perceptual effect of color (RYB) while the other 
is concerned mainly with the creation of color 
digitally and in film. As our purpose here is color 
effect, I'll stick to the painters' primaries. 

Strong hues are perceived in multi-leveled 
ways, with various associations that have as much 
to do with culture and experience as with optical 
reality. Red is perceived as one of the strongest 
and densest colors. It tends to advance, so that 
when in the foreground it enhances the sense of 
depth. It is energetic, vital, earthy, strong, and 
warm, even hot. It can connote passion (hot- 
bloodedness) and can also suggest aggression 
and danger (it is a symbol for warning and 
prohibition). It has temperature associations, 
and is commonly used as the symbol for heat. 

Yellow is the brightest of all colors, and 
does not even exist in a dark form. Expressively, 
it is vigorous, sharp, and insistent, sometimes 
aggressive, sometimes cheerful. It has obvious 
associations with the sun and other sources of 
light, and especially against a dark background 
appears to radiate light itself. 

Blue recedes more than yellow, and tends to 
be quiet, relatively dark, and distinctly cool. It has 
a transparency that contrasts with red's opacity. 
It also appears in many forms, and is a color that 


Hue is typically measured in degrees, from o° to 360 , 
and in this arrangement, the relationships across the 
circle are important. Colors opposite each other are 
known as complementaries, and these form the basis 
of the principle of color harmony. Here the classic 

many people have difficulty in judging precisely. 
The primary symbolism of blue derives from its 
two most widespread occurrences in nature: the sky 
and water. Thus, airiness, coolness, wetness are all 
possible associations. Photographically, it is one of 
the easiest colors to find, because of sky reflections. 
The secondary colors that are complementary 
to these primaries are green (opposite red on 
the color wheel), violet (opposite yellow), and 
orange (opposite blue). Green is the first and 
foremost color of nature, and its associations and 
symbolism, usually positive, come principally 
from this. Plants are green, and so it is the color of 
growth; by extension it carries suggestions of hope 
and progress. For the same reasons, yellow-green 
has spring-like associations of youth. Negative 

digital color wheel shows that the printer's primaries 
(cyan, magenta, and yellow) lie directly opposite red, 
green, and blue.The painter's primaries, however, 
do not produce such even spokes, with varying 
definitions of blue and green. 

associations of green tend toward sickness and 
decomposition. We can perceive more varieties 
of green, between yellow on the one hand and 
blue on the other, than any other color. 

Violet is an elusive and rare color, both to 
find and capture, and to reproduce accurately. It 
is easily confused with purple. Violet has rich and 
sumptuous associations, and also those of mystery 
and immensity. The similar color purple has 
religious, regal, and superstitious connotations. 

Orange borrows from red on the one side and 
yellow on the other. It is warm, strong, brilliant, 
and powerful, at least when pure. It is the color 
of fire and of late afternoon sunlight. It has 
associations of festivity and celebration, but also 
of heat and dryness. 


1 15 


2. BLUE 




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Ultimately, colors have to be treated in 
relationship to each other — and they are 
perceived differently according to the other 
colors they are seen next to. Red next to blue 
appears to have a different nature from red next 
to green, and yellow against a black background 
has a different intensity from yellow against 
white. Digital photography now gives a huge 
degree of control over the appearance of color 
in a photograph, and the hue, saturation, and 
brightness are all adjustable. To what extent and 
in what direction these adjustments should be 
made is a relatively new issue for photography. 

Arguably the greatest problem with color 
in photography and in art is the notion of 
Tightness and wrongness. As we've just seen 
(pages 1 14-1 15), colors evoke reactions in the 
viewer that range from the physiological to the 
emotional, yet few people are able to articulate 
why they like or dislike certain colors and certain 
combinations. Indeed, few people are interested 
in analyzing their visual preferences, while at the 
same time expressing definite reactions. 

As early as the fourth century BC, the 
Greeks saw a possible connection between the 
scale of colors and the scale of music, and even 
applied color terminology to music by defining 
the chromatic scale, which was divided into 
semitones. This relationship has persisted, 
and it was a short step from this to theories of 
harmony. Harmony in both music and color 
has had different meanings throughout history, 
from the Greek sense of fitting together to the 
more modern one of a pleasing assembly. Taste 
and fashion enter this, with the result that there 
have been many, and conflicting, theories about 
how colors "ought" to be combined. This is a 
huge subject, dealt with at some length in my 
book Digital Photography Expert: Color, and in 
the greatest detail of all in John Gage's Color 
and Culture, but here I'm concerned with the 
need to take a balanced, non- dogmatic view. 
On the one hand, there are ways of combining 
colors that tend to be acceptable to most viewers, 
and it would be foolish to ignore them. On 


A classic and by no means uncommon 
photographic color combination. 

1 18 



The pink of this man's robe is in almost direct 
opposition to the hue of the grass beneath. 


Red feathers contrast with the green foliage, 
seeming to lift the birds from the background. 


1 19 

the other, the creative use of color demands 
personal expression — meaning not following 
rules. This dualism — acknowledging that certain 
relationships and techniques work, yet not 
necessarily using them — takes us back to the 
fundamental principle of balance that we looked 
at in Chapter 2 (pages 32-63, specifically page 40). 
If we treat harmony in the sense of pleasing, 
acceptable relationships, there are two well- 
established classes. One is complementary 
harmony (hues across the color circle), and the 
other is harmony of similarity (hues from the 
same sector of the color circle). The experimental 
basis for complementary harmony, which we 
don't need to go into in great detail here, rests 
on successive and simultaneous contrast, and 
on the arrangement of the color circle, in which 
hues are laid out in sequence according to their 
wavelength. Simply put, in successive contrast, 
if you stare at a colored patch for at least half 
a minute and then shift your gaze to a blank 
area of white, you will see an after-image in the 
complementary color — the opposite across the 

color circle. There is a similar but less dramatic 
effect when colors are seen side by side, in which 
the eye tends to compensate; while in the color 
circle, mixing two opposites produce a neutral. 

Harmony of similarity is more obvious. 
Colors next to each other in any color model, 
from a color circle to a three-dimensional shape 
such as a Munsell solid, simply go well together 
because they present no conflict. "Warm" colors, 
from yellow through red, have an obvious 
similarity, as do "cold" colors from blue to green, 
or a group of greens, for example. 

Another consideration is relative brightness. 
Different hues are perceived as having different 
light values, with yellow the brightest and violet 
the darkest. In other words, there is no such 
thing as a dark yellow, nor is there a light violet; 
instead, these colors become others — ochre, 
for example, or mauve. The German poet and 
playwright J.W. von Goethe was the first to assign 
values to hues — yellow as nine, orange as eight, 
red and green both six, blue as four, and violet as 
three — and these are still considered workable. 


Against the drab desert colors in this village on the 
banks of the Nile in Nubia, the woman's mauve 
headscarf brings a visual relief, and also a point of 
focus for the attention. 

As the color bars on page 121 show, for the most 
predictable harmony, colors are combined in 
inverse proportion to their light values. 

Do theories of harmony mean that colors can 
be discordant? Maybe. Colors can appear to some 
people at some time to clash, yet to others at a 
different time they may be perfectly acceptable. 
The painter Kandinsky certainly thought so, 
declaring in 1912 that "Clashing discord . . . 
'principles' overthrown . . . stress and longing 
. . . opposites and contradictions . . . this is our 
harmony." Pink and lime green, for example, 
may not be everyone's idea of color harmony, 
but if you like kitsch, and in particular the 
Japanese "cute" use of it, their combination is 
close to ideal. 




According to classic color theory, colors 
harmonize most completely with each other 
when their areas are in inverse proportion 
to their relative brightness. As proposed by 
Goethe, red and green are equally bright, 
so combine i:i; orange is twice as bright as 
blue and so their ideal combination is i:2; 
while yellow and violet are at the extremes 
of the brightness scale, with ideal combined 
proportions of i:3.Three-way combinations 
follow the same principle. 

Orange (3) and Blue (8) 

Orange (3), Green (4), and Violet (8) 


The purpose of this shot was to show a mass of 
titanium prosthetic knee joints, but without the 
one taped in red, the composition would have been 
directionless.The red color provides a point for the 
eye to return to after looking around the frame. 

Color accent is an important variation on 
color combinations. In the same way that a small 
subject that stands out clearly from its setting 
functions graphically as a point (see pages 66-69), 
a small area of contrasting color has a similar 
focusing effect. The color relationships that we 
just looked at continue to apply, but with less 
force because of the size disparity in the areas. 
The most distinct effect is when the setting is 
relatively colorless and the two more pure hues 
occupy localized areas. This special form of color 
contrast inevitably gives greater prominence to 
what painters call "local color" — the supposedly 
true color of an object seen in neutral lighting, 
without the influence of color cast. Color accents 
above all stress object color. 

Red (4) and Green (4) 

Yellow (3) and Violet (9) 

Yellow (3), Red (4), and Blue (9) 



Except in manmade environments, strong 
colors are relatively scarce in the world. We 
may remember them more clearly, as in the colors 
of flowers or sunsets, but they occupy much less 
visual space than the subdued greens, browns, 
ochers, flesh tones, slate blues, grays, and pastels 
that make up most natural scenes. Anyone 
doubting this need only go out and try to capture 
with a camera the six strong colors that we've 
just been looking at (pages 114-121) — without 
resorting to manmade colored objects. 

There are several ways of describing this 
majority of less-than-pure colors: muted, broken, 
muddy, desaturated, shadowy, washed out. 
Neutrals that have a tinge of color are sometimes 
referred to as chromatic grays, blacks, or whites. 
Technically, they are all pure hues modulated 
by desaturating, lightening, or darkening, or a 
combination of these. High-key and low-key 
color images are by necessity muted, unless there 
is an added strong color accent. Complementary 
and contrasting color relationships are, of 
course, less obvious, but there are greater 
possibilities for working within one sector of the 
color circle. In general, muted colors can offer 

more subtlety and a quieter, even more refined 
pleasure, as the images on these pages illustrate. 

How the colors of real life are translated 
into an image by sensor or film is yet another 
matter. Indeed, translation is a more accurate 
term than recording, because the process, both 
in film and digitally, involves separating complex 
colors into three components — red, green, and 
blue — and then recombining them in certain 
proportions. There is considerable room for 
decision-making here, and in the heyday of color 
film, manufacturers devised different strategies 
for different brands. Kodachrome, which was the 
first color film generally available to the public, 
but also the professional film of choice for several 
decades, was known for its rich, saturated colors, 
particularly when underexposed to an extent (see 
page 112). Paul Simon even wrote a song called 
"Kodachrome" in 1973, drawing attention to the 
"nice bright colors" and the way the saturated effect 
"makes you think all the world's a sunny day." 

This translation of color, however, gained 
little favor in the art world, even in the hands 
of a master like Ernst Haas, and was generally 
considered tainted by commercialism and excess. 

The Color Formalists (see page 152) approached 
color more circumspectly, even when, as in the 
case of William Eggleston, they used Kodachrome 
from which to make prints. Yet in the wider 
world of photography, saturation continued, 
and the film that was partly responsible for 
Kodachrome's demise, Velvia from Fuji, was also 
manufactured to create rich and vivid hues. Now, 
with digital photography, the translation is entirely 
in the hands of users, and muted colors can be 
enlivened as easily as rich colors can be subdued. 
Photographers now have a palette as controllable 
as that of any painter. 


Sunset over the Nile below Khartoum. A range from 
pale orange to mauve is set off against pale blue 
reflections where a breeze has ruffled the water in 
a muted relationship of complementary colors. 




Brown, which is technically a 
heavily desaturated red, is the 
classic broken color, with earthy 
connotations. Here, henna is 
being applied to a Sudanese 
woman's hand. 



Soft greens, as in this moss covering an 
Angkorean bas-relief figure, connote rain, 
dampness, and undergrowth. 




Hazy sunlight reflected in the patinated bronze of a 
Vietnamese dynastic urn defines the metallic quality 
of the surface by means of reflection and a delicate 
hue change. 


A fugitive rainbow effect occurs with some 
surfaces, notably soap bubbles and oil slicks, 
most obviously in a hard, bright light and with 
a dark background. Reflections from a sandwich 
of transparent surfaces, as here, causes light 
waves to interfere with each other, producing 
a shimmering spectral range of hues. 




The black-and-white photographic image 
occupies a unique place in art. It is not 
that black and white is in any way new to 
art — drawing, charcoal sketches, woodcuts, 
and etching have been executed without color 
throughout history — but that in photography 
it was the norm, initially entirely for technical 
reasons. More interesting still is that when 
the technical limitations were swept away by 
the invention of color film, black and white 
remained embedded as the medium of choice 
for many photographers. This continues today. 

In the popular view, photography is more 
realistic than any other graphic art because the 
camera takes its images directly, optically from 
reality. By extension, color photography must be 
more realistic than black and white because it 
reproduces more information from the real world. 
However, all art is illusion (see E. H. Gombrich's 
classic study Art and Illusion), and a photograph 
as much as a painting is a two-dimensional 
exercise in triggering perceptual responses, not a 
two-dimensional version of the real world. The 
argument for black-and-white photography is 

that it makes less attempt than color at being 
literal. In visual terms, black and white allows 
more expression in the modulation of tone, in 
conveying texture, the modeling of form, and 
defining shape. What is no longer true, however, 
is the former argument of committed black-and- 
white photographers that it allows the greatest 
freedom in darkroom interpretation. This was the 
case, but now digital post-production and archival 
desktop inkjet printing have made full expressive 
interpretation in color photography a reality. 
Black and white, incidentally, has also benefitted 
from digital post-production in that the three 
channels — red, green, and blue — can be mixed in 
any proportion for an even greater control over 
the tonal interpretation of color than was ever 
possible by using colored filters when shooting. 
Whereas the range of effects were usually limited 
to a handful, including a darker sky from a red 
filter, increased atmospheric haze from a blue filter, 
and lighter vegetation and darker skin tones from 
a green filter, channel mixing in Photoshop and 
similar applications allows any hue to be rendered 
anywhere between black and white. 


Two photographs, both taken of the same subject 
at about the same time.The color image, shot on 
transparency film, is natural and realistic, leading 
attention directly to the actions and attitude of 
the lioness and cub. The black-and-white version 
is a little different. Lacking color, the image 
is slightly more abstract, and the shape and 
line of the lioness become more important 
to the overall effect of the image. 


Removing the quality of color from an image 
enhances its other qualities. With the modulation 
entirely in tone, the eye pays more attention to 
texture, line, and shape.Thetextural qualities of 
the surfaces play an important role in this print, 
and have been enhanced by using a hard paper 
grade to keep the background a rich, dark black. 






What gives composition a bad name 
is the suggestion that there are 
rules. We have certainly seen examples of 
how things work, how the principles and 
elements of design can have predictable 
effects on viewers, but these are very far 
from rules. To say that a small amount of 
yellow complements a large area of violet 
in a reasonably satisfying way is true, but 
to claim that you should always strive for 
this relationship between the two colors is 
silly. What determines composition is the 
purpose — the intent. As a simple example, 
is the purpose to please as many people as 
possible, or to be different and unexpected? 
Intent does not even have to be that 
specific; it may be an unspoken individual 
preference. Nevertheless, awareness of 
what you want should generally come 
before you make compositional decisions. 

Most photography tends towards 
the pragmatic, simply because the 
camera is so well suited to recording and 
presenting visual information. In terms 
of quantity, photography is used more 
in mass communication than in fine art. 
The leading American graphic designer 
Milton Glaser wrote, "As society developed, 
the information and the art functions 
diverged, and distinctions were made 
between high art and communicating 
information to increasing numbers of 
people."That most photography falls 
on the mass communications side of 
this divide is because it is so easy to 

reproduce, and because it is so widely 
used non-professionally, both mitigating 
the evolution of clear individual style. 
Style in photography, with which we will 
conclude this chapter, is more elusive than 
in painting. It means, essentially, a certain 
graphic stamp on a body of work, but the 
elements and techniques that go together 
to make it are not always as distinctive 
as some people would like. Geoff Dyer, 
in The Ongoing Moment, is not the first 
commentator to note this. In his study 
of the photographers of the American 
Depression, he wrote, "Again and again 
we come up against [it] when studying 
photography: a subject strongly identified 
with one photographer — so much so 
that one identifies the photographer by 
the subject — turns out to be shared and 
replicated by several others." 

In painting, the very process of making 
an image depends on the perception of the 
artist and the way in which the materials 
are applied. There is no such thing as a 
neutral, characterless image (even imitative 
techniques are based on some style). The 
reverse is true of photography. Photographs 
can be, and unfortunately often are, taken 
with little thought for the way they look. 
The camera can produce a photograph by 
itself, and to influence the composition 
and character of the image takes effort, 
as we have seen. To make an identifiable 
difference to the style of an image, the 
techniques used need to be definite rather 

than subtle. In most photographs it is the 
content that dominates, and most of the 
stylistic techniques that a photographer 
can use predictably are limited. 

So far we have been concerned with the 
vocabulary and grammar of composition, 
but the process usually begins with 
purpose — a general or specific idea of what 
kind of image the photographer wants. 
However it is perfectly possible to start 
with no idea whatsoever, and simply react. 
This is actually one of the central problems 
in photography — overcoming the sheer 
mindless ease of taking a picture. The 
problem is compounded by the evidence 
that occasionally a strong image can result 
from no intention. The emphasis, though, is 
on "occasional," and even relying on instant 
reactions to the changing scene before you 
is a kind of plan. Previous shoots may lead 
you to expect that something promising 
may turn up as long as you take the camera 
and gooff on a vague search. The key is to 
remain aware of what you are setting out 
to do, and what results are likely to satisfy 
you. It matters little that the intention may 
be only sketchy; knowing it will always help 
the design. The different kinds of intent fall 
naturally into contrasting pairs, and that is 
the way I will examine them in this chapter, 
beginning with the most basic, between 
conventional and challenging. It may also 
become more useful to see them as scales, 
because there are many positions that can 
be taken between the two extremes. 




One of the most important decisions in 
intent is how much you want to stay within 
the boundaries of what a viewer is expecting 
to see. Throughout the first five chapters we 
saw demonstrated time and again how certain 
compositional techniques and relationships 
deliver predictably satisfying results. For example, 
placement and division that more or less fit the 
proportions of the Golden Section (or, in a more 
rough-and-ready way, the rule of thirds) really 
are considered by most people to be appropriate 
and fitting. Similarly, complementary colors in the 
proportions shown on page 121 create a pleasing 
effect — again, for most people. What is important 
to remember, however, is that efficacy doesn't 
make a rule. Just because something suits the 
average taste does not make it better. Predictably 
efficient composition is perfect for some purposes, 
but not for others. It is not, of course, exciting and 
risky. This is where intent comes in. 

For instance, if you need to show something 
as clearly as possible, or at its most attractive, then 
certain rules apply. The composition, lighting, 
and the treatment in general will be geared 
toward the conventional and toward the tried and 
tested. In a landscape, for example, this argues 
strongly for a viewpoint that has been used by 
other photographers many times before (because 
it is known to be attractive), and for the "golden 
light" of late afternoon or early morning in good 
weather. This would be the kind of shot that the 
publisher of a travel brochure would want — a 
good, workmanlike stock photograph, with good 
sales potential. On the other hand, the very fact 
that such an image is similar to many others 
already taken might be reason enough to avoid 
it, and in that case you might be actively looking 
for an original treatment — to surprise the viewer 
and perhaps show off imaginative skill. 

The issue then becomes how far to go 
in unusual composition without the result 
looking forced or ridiculous. In fact, on this 
all-important scale between conventional and 
unconventional, all the difficult decisions are 
in the direction of the unconventional. Let me 

work around this a little farther. If you need to 
be clear and acceptable, then the goal is precise 
and straightforward. More than this, the known 
techniques based on the psychology of perception 
are on your side. They are working for you in 
the same direction. However, if you want to 
move away from this and exercise more creative 
imagination, the definitions become fuzzy. 
Moving away from conventional images means 
moving away from what is known to work, and 
so ultimately into uncharted territory, What may 
work for you may not work for a viewer. There 
are two things to consider: how far to move 
towards the unconventional in composition, 
and for what exact reason. Move too far (such 
as placing the subject of the photograph right in 
one corner) and you would need a good reason 
to avoid it looking contrived or silly. As for 
"exact reason," there are many possible shades 
of purpose, and simply being different is the 
least convincing. Writing about the American 
photographer Garry Winogrand, whose most 
productive years were between the mid- '60s and 
the mid- '70s, and whose work was contentious 
due to its evident lack of skill or clear purpose, 
the then-director of photography at the Museum 
of Modern Art, John Szarkowski, who promoted 
this photographer, wrote, "Winogrand said that 
if he saw a familiar picture in his viewfinder he 
'would do something to change it' — something 
that would give him an unsolved problem." This 
is weak purpose and weak reasoning. A more 
valid reason might be to choose a compositional 
style that more accurately reflects the way the 
photographer sees the subject — as Robert Frank 
did when he travelled across 1950s America 
on the Guggenheim grant that resulted in his 
seminal book The Americans. 

In case all that sounded like unqualified 
praise for individuality and breaking the rules, 
I'd like to give the counter- argument in favor 
of convention. It is very easy to praise attempts 
at originality, with some implication that the 
conventional treatment is ordinary and less 
imaginative. In fact, this basic advice, to look 


In contrast to the Japanese scenic view, both 
technique and content here are not what most 
viewers would anticipate. The subject is a southern 
Sudanese canecutter on piecework, slashing away 
at the blackened cane stalks after the lot has been 
burned; as dawn and the end of his shift approaches, 
he works even harder to fill his quota. Experiment 
and luck went into the shooting: the conditions 
were choking and dark, and the only safe way to 
shoot from close with a wide-angle lens was to hold 
the camera at arm's length close to the ground. 
Capturing the headlamp and the pre-dawn light 
meant a time exposure added to rear-curtain flash, 
which made it highly unpredictable.There were 
many failures before this shot. 

for the different, is in danger of becoming 
conventional itself. Photography — for the reasons 
we are exploring in this chapter but have already 
seen through the book — has a special tendency to 
encourage originality, but the obvious danger is 
in trying to be different simply for its own sake. 
Different is not necessarily better, and is a poor 
goal to aim for without good reason and some 
skill. Treatments become conventional because, 
in general, they work, and there are many more 
situations in photography that call for the 
workmanlike rather than for the unusual. 
The search for originality, for a visual 
treatment that is different from what has been 
done before, has a special place in photography. 
More, I would argue, than in other visual arts, 
and we can see constant attempts at this. Why 
this should be so is due to two things: the sheer 
quantity of photographs that we are exposed 
to, and the recording process directly and 
optically, from scene through lens to sensor. The 
combination of these two makes it relatively 
difficult to escape from making similar images of 
similar scenes. Well-known scenes and subjects 
have inevitably been photographed endlessly, and 
as the ways of doing this are fairly limited (a few 
obvious viewpoints, a few commonsense ways of 
composing), most photographers naturally feel 
dissatisfaction at creating an image that may be 


This is a completely "safe" image in that it fulfils the 
expectations of a large audience — a view of Mount 
Fuji under good conditions of season (snow-capped), 
weather (clear with good visibility), and light (just 
after sunrise). Moreover, the viewpoint has been 
chosen with care and planning to include an icon 
of traditional Japan, and framed efficiently. In all, 
completely conventional with regard to subject 
matter and treatment. 





indistinguishable from many others. Except as 
a record of having been there, it may even seem 
rather pointless. It is not as if there is any choice 
in how the details or shapes are rendered, as there 
is in painting. The camera works impartially and 
without character. This is largely what motivates 
photographers to search for new ways of framing 
shots, because design is the route most accessible 
for individual interpretation. 

This leads on to a more fundamental 
issue — that of the role of surprise in photography 
in general. Ultimately this is a philosophical 
concern, and indeed has attracted the attention 
of philosophers such as Roland Barthes. I want to 
touch on this here only in as much as it could be 

useful to taking photographs, but it has its roots 
in the fact that all unmanipulated photographs 
show what was actually there, in place and time 
and in reality. Therefore, unless the subject or 
its treatment have something special about 
them, there is a constant risk of the image being 
ignored, being thought of as uninteresting. Jean- 
Paul Sartre wrote that "Newspaper photographs 
can very well 'say nothing to me' .... Moreover, 
cases occur where the photograph leaves me so 
indifferent that I do not even bother to see it 'as 
an image.' The photograph is vaguely constituted 
as an object..." This is ultimately why so many 
photographers want to break the ordinariness 
and surprise the viewer. Barthes identified a 


The more eccentric the composition (as we saw 
on pages 24-25), the less conventional, but the 
more a good reason is required. In this view 
of a village at sunrise in the Nuba Mountains, 
the real reason for having the man and child 
in the far top left of the frame is that the best 
area of thatched roofs (in terms of pattern and 
consistency) was below him and to the right. 

gamut of surprises (though none that he cared 
for much), and these included rarity of subject, 
capture of gesture normally missed by the eye, 
technical prowess, "contortions of technique," 
and the lucky find. 

v * 




. v * , . 


* \ > 




f * 

^ * 

\ < 






In both images, shot within a number of minutes 
of each other, what appealed photographically was 
the mass of white-clad figures, and the approach 
taken was the obvious one of a slightly elevated 
viewpoint and a telephoto lens to compress the 
perspective (and so exclude extraneous surrounding 
details). The first shot is a variety of a "field" image 
(see pages 50-51) and straightforward. The second 
was the result of exploring different camera 
positions, and the chance appearance of the young 
girl, who stepped out of line because she was bored. 


Akha hill-tribe girls in northern Thailand were 
returning to the village at the end of the day, 
carrying on their backs large sheafs of grass for 
thatching. Having already photographed this in 
more conventional lighting, I was intrigued by the 
strange appearance they had in silhouette from the 
bottom of the slope, shot with a telephoto lens. 






Another choice of intent is between shooting 
that relies on observational skills and speed 
of reaction to capture events as they unfold in 
front of the camera, and photography that is to 
some extent organised from the start. The issue 
is one of control, or at least attempted control, 
over the circumstances of the shoot. There is no 
question of legitimacy here, and a purely reactive 
reportage photograph does not have any claim to 
being truer than a still-life that has been carefully 
arranged over the course of a day. It is instead 
very much a matter of style, influenced by the 
nature of what is being photographed. 

The usual view is that the amount of control 
exercised when shooting is determined by the 
subject. Thus, street photography is the most 
reactive because it has to be, and still-life the 
most planned because it can be. Largely this is 
true, as we explore in the next chapter, Process, 
but it is by no means inevitable. Just because 
most people tend to tackle a particular type of 
subject in a predictable way does not mean that 
other approaches are not possible. Personal style 
can override the obvious treatments. Take street 
photography, normally the hallowed ground of 
slice-of-life realism. The American photographer 
Philip-Lorca diCorcia approached the traditional 
subjects in a different way, by installing 
concealed flash lights that could be triggered 
by a radio signal, to add "a cinematic gloss to 
a commonplace event," in the photographer's 
words. An earlier, well-known example is Kiss 
by the Hotel Ville y taken by French photographer 
Robert Doisneau in 1950, a photograph that 
became a romantic icon and popular poster. 
Seemingly spontaneous, it was in fact posed. As 
Doisneau later said, "I would have never dared 
to photograph people like that. Lovers kissing in 
the street, those couples are rarely legitimate." 

Equally, while the studio still-life image 
epitomizes control in photography, with some 
shoots taking days, from sourcing subjects and 
props, building the lighting and the set, to finally 
constructing the image, it is also possible to do 
the opposite — guerilla still-life photography 

taken handheld from real life. The role of the 
photographer's personality is crucial. Even Edward 
Weston, who famously took hours to make 
exposures in natural light and was extremely 
rigorous in composition, claimed to react rather 
than to pursue a worked- out plan: "My way of 
working — I start with no preconceived idea — 
discovery excites me to focus — then rediscovery 
through the lens — final form of presentation seen 
on ground glass, the finished print pre-visioned 
complete in every detail of texture, movement, 
proportion, before exposure — the shutter's release 
automatically and finally fixes my conception, 
allowing no other manipulation — the ultimate 
end, the print, is but a duplication of all that I saw 
and felt through my camera." 

However closely a shot is planned and art- 
directed, as tends to happen in advertising, there 
are moments during the shoot when new ideas 
and possibilities occur. American photographer 
Ray Metzker commented, "As one is making 
images, there's this flow; there are certain images 
that one stumbles on. Sometimes it's with great 
delight and sometimes it's with puzzlement. 
But I can recognize that signal..." This is the 
subject of the next chapter, Process, but when 
photographers know from experience that this 
may happen, it becomes part of the intent. There 
are many shades of what we could call half- 
planned photography, in which the photographer 
goes part-way towards creating favorable 
conditions for shooting, and then allows reaction 
to play its part. Making a reconnaissance for 
a landscape shot to check possible viewpoints 
and the way the light falls, then returning when 
weather and lighting conditions seem favorable, 
is one example. Researching an event and then 
turning up on the day prepared for an anticipated 
set of possibilities is another. 


Spontaneous and reactive, this photograph of a 
homeless boy waking up next to a garbage can on a 
Delhi street was the result of nothing more planned 
than walking around the streets for a couple of hours 
from sunrise onward. 


A half-planned photograph, in which the event — 
behind the scenes at a dance performance in Kerala, 
southern India — was known and permissions and 
attendance secured. What then remained was 
exploration within this localized situation. 


A set-piece interior, in which a traditional nineteenth 
century Thai kitchen was fitted out and put to work, 
with costumed model, owes most of its effect to 
planning and logistics, including the acquisition of 
props, timing for the natural light, and provision of 
photographic lighting. 




One widely practised form of planning is anticipating natural lighting in 
an exterior view. With both landscape and architecture, experience and 
local knowledge (making use of sunrise and sunset tables, GPS, compass, 
and weather forecasts) make it possible to take an informed guess 
about how a scene will look at a later time. In this case, Mount Popa on 
the outskirts of Pagan, Burma, the recce was made earlier in the day, and 
this shot, taken shortly before sunrise, was more or less predicted. 




One way of dividing the multitude of 
reasons why people take photographs 
attempts to draw a line between the content 
and the interpretation (or content and form, if 
you like). Exploration has always been central 
to photography, and it's perfectly possible to 
look at all the ways of placing subjects, dividing 
frames, juxtaposing colors, and so on, as exploring 

the visual possibilities of a frame. But when it 
comes to intent — the self-assigned purpose of 
photographers — there is a bipolar difference 
between exploring the world and exploring one's 
own imagination. At one end we have the desire to 
go out and discover what people, things, and places 
look like, and on the other the impulse to see what 
we ourselves can do with them through the camera. 


Documentation was the main purpose of this 
project — the last week of an English country 
estate that had been untouched for more than a 
century, before it was handed over to the National 
Trust, who were about to make an inventory 
and then restore the property before opening 
it, much later, to the public.This bedroom alone 
was a time capsule. In camera position, lighting 
and angle of view, the approach is artless — the 
purpose is to show in as neutral a fashion as 
possible how the room looked upon entering. 

The first of these, exploring the world 
(the manifesto of Life magazine, launched in 
1936, was "to see life; to see the world; to eye- 
witness great events; to watch the faces of the 
poor and the gestures of the proud..."), seems 
initially to be the more practical, but it is a little 
more complicated than that. Shorn of creative 
or artistic pretensions, this could be called 
documentary photography, and indeed, the 
original definition stressed the relative absence of 
the photographer's own ego. Authenticity, even 
truth, were considered to be attainable ideals, 
as in the Farm Security Administration (FSA) 
photographic program in the United States 
during the Depression. Archetypal documentary 
photographers include Walker Evans, Eugene 
Atget, and August Sander, among others. 
Walker Evans' biographer Belinda Rathbone, 
commenting on Evans' description of the wealth 
of detail in one of his pictures, wrote that, "This 
eclectic mix of information, delivered in even, 
unspectacular description, exemplified to Evans 
those photographs that were 'quiet and true'." 

At the other pole is the desire to do something 
untried and unique photographically, whatever 
the subject. That the subject might already have 
been endlessly photographed by others may 
even be an advantage — a challenge to one's own 
creativity. Garry Winogrand, in a frequently 
quoted declaration of intent, said, "I photograph 
to find out what something will look like when 




At the Shinto shrine of Itsukushima on Miyajima 
Island, Japan, document was less important than 
an evocation of the movement of the priests, and 
a sub-plot of permanence-impermanence. A time 
exposure, with its attendant uncertainty, was the 
chosen method. 


A clean and precise product shot of a 
traditional iron Japanese teapot, with the 
background dropped out in post-production, 
makes a documentary still-life record. 

photographed." This is just one interpretation, 
and is a kind of loose, open-to-everything 
approach. There are others, including the 
deliberate application of an already worked- out 
style — perhaps strong angles with a wide-angle 
lens, or deliberate blur of one kind or another, 
or strange manipulations of color. 

The complication is that neither document 
nor expression are pure ideals. Interpretation 
is involved in making a record, and expressive 
photography needs content to work on. The bias 
of intent is usually in one direction or the other, 
but photographers themselves may not always 
be able to separate one from the other — or even 
need to, to be honest. A completely deadpan 
view, as in a police crime- scene photograph or a 
catalogue of coins, is by definition not particularly 
interesting other than as a data source, and the 
photographer's eye usually intrudes. To quote 
Walker Evans again, "It's as though there's a 
wonderful secret in a certain place and I can 
capture it. Only I, at this moment, can capture it, 
and only this moment and only me." 


On an assignment to make an anniversary book for 
the oldest hotel in St Moritz, Switzerland, the art 
director's brief stressed images that were oblique 
and ambiguous, deliberately to avoid the normal, 

precise, and organised hotel-brochure style. 
This shot makes use of the vague and slightly 
distorted reflections in the glass covering an 
old painting in the lobby. 




Simplicity and reduction to essentials have 
been so much a part of modern art and 
design that the advice to "simplify" often passes 
without question. It became one strand of 
Modernism, particularly in Constructivism, 
which laid the foundations for Minimalism and 
its central tenet "Less is more." Its application 
to photography is particularly intriguing, 
because the natural messiness of uncomposed 
real-life scenes seems to call out for a solution 
like this. One very convincing argument for 
holding simplicity as a principle in composing 
photographs is that it is a natural extension 
of creating order out of chaos — which is, of 
course, one definition of composition itself. 

For this reason, simplification almost always 
works, at least to the extent that it helps make an 
effective, workmanlike image, but to make a rule 
out of it would just be restrictive. It may well be that 
photography itself helps to keep simplicity alive as 
a regular goal, because without care and attention 
most scenes from real life tend to record rather 
messily and untidily. Bringing some kind of graphic 
organization to a photograph is easiest to do by 
reducing the mess, cutting out the unnecessary 
(such as by cropping or changing viewpoint) and 
imposing a structure which is then simpler. The 
ability to bring order from chaos has become one 
of the skills most admired in photography. 

Nevertheless, there are arguments in favor 
of a more complex arrangement, in which the 
structure is dense and rich, offering more for the 
eye to explore and examine. Handling several 
interlocking components in an image rather than 
a minimalist one or two takes considerable skill 
if the result is still to have some kind of order. As 
we saw in Chapters 2 and 3, adding (or finding) 
more points of interest in the frame increases 
complexity and is demanding, but after a certain 
number the points of interest merge into a "field" 
image, and as such become simple once again — 
from a single person to a group to a crowd. 

One of the more interesting developments 
of simplification is abstraction. In art, to abstract 
involves an extreme translation away from the 

representational and towards more purely graphic 
forms. In the case of Picasso and Cubism, one 
motive certainly was the desire to represent things 
in simple forms that retained depth. In painting 
and sculpture, the starting point can be real 
objects (as in the Cubist paintings of Picasso and 
Braque, and in Constantin Brancusi's sculptures), 
but it does not need to be. The painter Paul Klee, 

among others, was more interested in playing 
with forms. Photography, on the other hand, is 
more or less compelled to begin with raw material 
from real life, which makes abstraction much 
more of a challenge, and more difficult to pull 
off. Moreover, the question of whether or not an 
image is abstract, or is to a degree abstract, can 
be a matter of opinion. What may be abstract to 




A minimalist interior in which the white finish 
to wall, ceiling, and floor, together with the 
balcony, serve to emphasize the dominant red 
of the modern sofa. 

one viewer may be a perfectly recognizable and 
not so interesting representation to another. The 
American photographer Paul Strand was known 
for his abstract compositions that often destroyed 
perspective, but he saw it somewhat differently: 
"I [...] made The White Fence and I have never 
made a purely abstract photograph since! I have 
always tried to apply all that I learn to all that I 
do. All good art is abstract in its structure." Ansel 
Adams, too, was suspicious of the term when 
applied to photography: "I prefer the term extract 
over abstract, since I cannot change the optical 
realities, but only manage them in relation to 
themselves and the format." 

Abstract composition, if we can call it that, 
tends to be rigorous in its organization, with 
an emphasis on excluding clues to realism. An 
appropriate choice of subject matter helps, and 
angular, manmade structures are among the most 
adaptable to this kind of composition. Closing 
in on details that would normally be beyond the 
normal range of the eye is another approach, 
aided by cropping that takes the view out of 
context. Patterns respond to abstraction also. One 
general problem, however, is that the real basis 
of the abstracted photograph tends to encourage 
a viewer response of "what-is-it?" as if it were a 
kind of test or puzzle (as indeed, it often has been 
in newspapers and magazines). 


In this complex image of a 
street scene in Jaipur, India, 
the high-contrast sunlight and 
many physical elements create 
an interlocking composition on 
several levels.The principal ones 
are shown schematically below. 





This photograph of various types of film achieves 
extreme simplicity through a carefully planned 
geometric construction, featuring corners and edges 
in exact alignments. The images on the films were 
selected to be ambiguous so as to give prominence 
to the rebates. 





How obvious should an image be? This is an 
interesting problem for a photographer, 
because in photojournalism in particular, the 
search is usually for the single powerful image 
that encapsulates the issue. When it becomes 
powerfully obvious and striking to you, the 
photographer, it becomes the same for the picture 
editor and the reader. The great single shot that 
says it all was very much part of the ethos of Life 
magazine, which was hugely influential on at 
least two generations of photographers. Partly 
it was the way I was taught, by editors such as 
Lifes Ed Thompson. Great value is attached to 
images that say it all, and say it instantly, but such 
photographs tend not to ask too much of the 
viewer. As Roland Barthes put it, writing about 
a Paris-Match cover photograph, the picture 
"is already complete." The dilemma, then, is 
that clarity packs a punch and so is a goal of 
photojournalism, but more ambiguous images 
that are slower to read are likely to absorb more 
attention — and last longer, in other words. 

It boils down essentially to the matter of 
ambiguity, and this, declared Ernst Gombrich, 
the influential art historian, "is clearly the key 
to the whole problem of image reading." The 
less obvious the point of the photograph, the 
more it involves the viewer in reading it and 
thinking about it. This is what Gombrich called 
the "beholder's share" — the involvement of the 
viewer, the viewer's experience and expectations, 


There is nothing ambiguous in either content or 
treatment about this image of a man taking his first 
sip of beer in an Amsterdam bar. The moment is 
caught, and the lighting attractive and appropriate 
for a glass of beer, but there is nothing to ponder. 
The image communicates quickly and efficiently. 


The newly opened Apple Store on New York's Fifth 
Avenue.The glass spiral staircase descending to 
below ground level offered a very different view 
from what would be expected from a store — the 
shadowy sequence of feet. 


Reference to things outside the frame almost 
always creates ambiguity and uncertainty. Without 
a caption, the full story here is impossible to guess. 
This is the summit of Adam's Peak, a sacred site in 
Sri Lanka, where hundreds of people gather each 
night to await the sunrise. Of course, this still leaves 
the question of why these people are so awed by a 
daily event. 


Ambiguity can be more subtle than the example 
above. Here it resides in the expression on this 
Burmese girl's face, perhaps enhanced by the 
tanaka bark powder that she has applied to her 
cheeks and forehead. It is not a happy expression, 
but whether she is simply lost in thought or 
brooding over something is impossible to tell. 





in enjoying and completing the experience of 
looking at a work of art. This works just as well 
in photography as in painting. In particular, 
there is a kind of flattery involved when the 
photograph is not so obvious at first glance, yet 
the viewer with a little effort finally does "get" 
it. This has been known in art for centuries, 
and the 17th century French art theorist Roger 
de Piles put it well when he wrote in favor of 
"employment for the spectator's imagination, 
which pleases itself in discovering and finishing 
things which it ascribes to the artist though in 
fact they proceed only from itself." In a sense, it is 

like hearing a clever joke — just understanding 
the point is rewarding. 

Ambiguity comes in many forms, from 
content to the composition. We'll come to the 
role of composition on pages 144-145, but we 
have already seen (on pages 130-139) something 
of the role of content — in particular the contrast 
between times when the content is so strong that 
it can carry poor composition, and times when 
the actual subject is much less important to 
the image than the way it is put together by the 
photographer. Here, let's take the role of content 
farther. When it is blindingly obvious and 

straightforward, as in the picture on page 140, 
the viewer sees, understands, and moves on. But 
when it is not at all clear what is going on, or why, 
then so long as the viewer can be persuaded to 
go on looking for some time more, he or she will 
begin to make interpretations. 

Sometimes, of course, these interpretations 
are wrongly made, in what Gombrich calls "traffic 
accidents on the way between artist and beholder." 
This may matter not at all, but it does suggest 
giving some thought to captions, if only as a means 
of holding the viewer's attention for long enough. 
Almost without exception, when photographs are 


The smaller image to the right 
(the first I took) is completely 
straightforward — a man painting 
a ship — but the angle of the sun 
casting a clear shadow on the 
side of the vessel suggested a less 
obvious, and so potentially more 
interesting, way of framing the 
shot. The shadow communicates 
what is happening well enough 
on its own. 



formally displayed, whether on a gallery wall, in a 
magazine or book, or on a website, they acquire a 
caption. This creates a new relationship between 
the image and its content, and between the image, 
the creator, and the viewer. This is a fertile ground 
for analysis, but also likely to stray far from the 
main purpose of this book, and so I'll limit my 
comments to the strictly relevant. I say "acquire" 
advisedly, because few photographers to my 
knowledge take pictures with a label in mind. It is at 
the point when the image becomes a useful object 
that people want to identify it. At its simplest, this 
is because of the basic human need to classify and 

order (not so far, perhaps, from the photographer's 
need to bring order to a scene when shooting). 

The conventions vary according to the 
display. For a gallery, the minimum is a title 
and date, with a subtitle describing the medium 
(such as "archival digital pigment print") and 
anything unusual about the process (such as 
"pinhole camera exposed for four hours"). For 
a magazine or book, more is usually required, 
but how detailed a description is very much 
up to individual preference and the style of the 
publication. Where this becomes relevant to 
composition and process is in the extra direction, 

or misdirection, that it gives the viewer. The way 
someone will read a photograph will definitely 
be influenced by the caption, and the most basic 
influence is what the photographer (or caption 
writer) declares the subject of the picture to 
be. For instance, a landscape taken at the site 
of a battle or a disaster acquires a different 
significance if we know this fact. And, needless 
to say, the stronger the content of the image, the 
more viewers will want to know the story behind 
it. Too little information can be intriguing, but it 
can also be frustrating and annoying, depending 
on your point of view. 


This image, shot during an assignment on Buddhist 
sculpture gardens, begs for more information. The 
original caption reads: "At the sculpture garden of Wat 
Phai Rong Wua,a girl pauses to look at the punishment 
being meted out to an adulterer. As a demon devours 
his arm, the words on the man's back read plaintively, 
'Why did you take my wife away from me?'". 



Just as events out of frame can be intriguing 
(see page 141), so can the traces of things 
that have already happened be mysterious. 
This outline of a man looks more ominous 
than it is — powder sprinkled on a devotee 
of a Venezuelan cult called Maria Lionza. 




The compositional route to being less obvious 
and promoting ambiguity in an image 
depends ultimately on delay. Specifically, while 
inviting the viewer to look at the image, a key 
element is embedded in the composition in 
such a way that it reveals itself only slowly, or 
after a pause. Instead of rapid communication, 
the photographer aims for the equivalent of a 
punchline delivered after the viewer has already 
entered the image. Doing this at the time of 
shooting means essentially stepping or pulling 
back instead of the more natural reaction of 
closing in on a subject of interest. It also often 
means seeing and treating the subject in context. 
Perhaps the most common class of delaying 
tactic is spatial reorganisation, in which the 
critical subject or key is made smaller or less 
central in the composition. This automatically 
places the first attention on the surroundings, 
and the jump from this background context 

to the discovery of the key subject relies on a 
relationship between the two, often with some 
surprise. The figure in a landscape is probably 
the best known of this kind of composition, 
and has a long history in painting preceding 
that in photography. Notable examples are The 
Martyrdom of Saint Catherine by Matthys Cock 
and The Sermon on the Mount by Claude Lorrain. 
In these paintings the landscape dominates 
human affairs, for a variety of reasons, and 
often it is only on the second look that the key 
human element becomes obvious. The small 
figure serves not just to enhance the scale of the 
landscape and to comment on human events 
in the scheme of things, but in the reading of 
the image creates a small event for the viewer. 
It prolongs the experience of looking at the 
picture and encourages a re-examination. 
Within this class, ways of temporarily "hiding" 
the subject include not just making it small, but 

placing it eccentrically away from the center, 
and misleading the eye by using geometry and 
organization to direct attention elsewhere first. 
Also, reversing any of the several techniques 
discussed earlier that emphasize a subject (such 
as differential focus and lighting) can help to 
"hide" a subject. 

There are other delaying tactics that are not 
so readily classifiable. One is to refer or "point" 
to a subject that is outside the frame, for instance 
by showing just its shadow, or by showing the 
reaction of someone to this unseen element. 
Another, shown opposite, is the surprise of 
unexpected phenomena, when something is not 
what it first appears to be — in this case a line of 
men who are not standing, but caught in mid- air. 
In all this, it's important to be aware of the risk 
of there being insufficient clues, to the point at 
which the viewer gives up before recognizing the 
point being made. 


The interest in this photograph 
is not really the boat on a klong 
(canal) in Bangkok, but the 
fact that it is still there after a 
massive motorway has been 
built right over it. The concrete 
pillars make a landscape 
which one would not normally 
associate with a traditional way 
of life. Hence, a close view of 
the boat would not have served 
the purpose. However, simply 
a long shot, with the boat very 
small, might just lose it from 
view. Instead, this viewpoint, and 
placing the boat at the far right 
of the frame, helps to point it out 
through the convergence of the 
motorway pillars. 




Two things contribute to the time lag in seeing the 
kneeling figure of a man praying — which is essential 
to appreciating the scale of the Buddha. One is the 
dramatic and unexpectedly high angle of view, the 
other is the great difference in scale between the 
two figures. 


Adherents of a Sufi sect in Omdurman, Sudan, 
practice a form of meditative jumping in unison. 
Catching them at the peak of the jump was an 
obvious choice, but the pattern of the matting 

makes the mid-air suspension less obvious at first 
glance, and this enhances the surprise when, after 
a few seconds, it is seen. 

l MiV 

& * W 

1 If 





This is a chance photograph, for which there was very 
little warning. The framing is right for giving some 
humor to the situation; by making sure that the boy 
stealing the fish appears just at the bottom of the 
frame, there is a small delay before he is noticed. 
The viewer first sees the women in a conventional 
marketplace shot and then notices the petty 
thieving going on below. This, of course, is how 
the fisherwomen themselves saw the event. 




Despite the inherent vagueness of the idea 
of style in photography, it can and does 
influence the way in which some people work. 
There is some distinction between an individual 
photographer's style and the more general style 
subscribed to at any one time by a number of 
photographers. The difficulty lies in agreeing 
on what legitimately constitutes a style rather 

than a trick or straightforward technique, and 
opinions vary greatly. When a style can be easily 
defined — for instance, in lighting, two from the 
past that come to mind are "painting with light" 
using customized light "hoses," and ringflash that 
gives a shadowless, hard effect from a special tube 
that surrounds the front of the lens — it might be 
better called a mannerism. On the other hand, 


A long exposure blends in and around this fire being 
used for cooking. The full exposure and the yellow- 
to-orange colors also help to unify the elements, 
giving a swishing, flowing image. 

when critics struggle hard for the definition of 
something they feel ought to be there, it may be 
that the style is at best tenuous. 

Whether we like or approve of them, there 
have been a number of photographic styles that 
are generally acknowledged. Because style is 
intimately connected with current fashion, most 
of these have already had their day — although, in 
the manner of fashion, they are always available 
for revival. Roughly in date order, they include 
Pictorialism, the Linked Ring, Photo-Secession, 
Neue Sachlichkeit (New Objectivity), Straight 
photography, Modernism, Constructivist, 
Minimalism, Color Formalism, and post-modern 
new realism. 

Also, surrealism in its time and beyond has 
had a powerful influence on photography, with 
Man Ray its best-known practitioner. But while 
most people would probably think of surrealist 
photography nowadays as being versions of 
the themes of Rene Magritte and Salvador Dali 
(endlessly reworked), it had a more fundamental 
effect. Peter Galassi, in his book, Henri Cartier- 
Bresson, The Early Work, wrote, "The Surrealists 
approached photography in the same way that 
Aragon and Breton ... approached the street: with 
a voracious appetite for the usual and unusual ... 
The Surrealists recognized in plain photographic 
fact an essential quality that had been excluded 
from prior theories of photographic realism. 
They saw that ordinary photographs, especially 
when uprooted from their practical functions, 
contain a wealth of unintended, unpredictable 
meanings." Cartier- Bresson himself wrote, "The 
only aspect of the phenomenon of photography 
that fascinates me and will always interest me, 
is the intuitive capture through the camera of 
what is seen. This is exactly how [Andre] Breton 
defined objective chance (le hasard objectif) in 
his Entretiens?' 

A tendency of photographers who work 
consciously to a style is to take the whole 
thing very seriously. For example, when Ansel 
Adams, Edward Weston, and others set up 
their "f64" group to promote "straight," "pure" 

photography, they railed against the sins of 
pictorialism. "In the early '30s," Adams wrote, 
"the salon syndrome was in full flower and 
the Pictorialists were riding high. For anyone 
trained in music or the visual arts, the shallow 
sentimentalism of the 'fuzzy- wuzzies' (as Edward 
Weston called them) was anathema, especially 
when they boasted of their importance in Art' 
... We felt the need for a stern manifesto!" 

As an antidote to this, I like the dry comment 
of M. F. Agha, who became art director of Vogue 
in 1928, on the then-current modernist style 
in photography: "Modernistic photography 
is easily recognized by its subject matter. Eggs 
(any style). Twenty shoes, standing in a row. A 
skyscraper, taken from a modernistic angle. Ten 
teacups standing in a row. A factory chimney 
seen through the ironwork of a railroad bridge 
(modernistic angle). The eye of a fly enlarged 
2000 times. The eye of an elephant (same size). 
The interior of a watch. Three different heads of 
one lady superimposed. The interior of a garbage 
can. More eggs ..." All conscious styles start to 
pall after a while. 

The concept of beauty is not far removed 
from style, and receives less rigorous attention 
than perhaps it should; indeed, it largely goes 
unquestioned. But if we understand how it comes 
to be agreed at any one time and in any one 
place, we can tighten the composition of images 
by using or rejecting it. Although beauty is an 
elusive concept, we all nevertheless employ it in 
judgment, and generally assume that everyone 
else knows what we are talking about. It is 
certainly true that some scenes and some faces, 
for example, will be considered beautiful by most 
people. Yet we don't know why, and as soon as we 
try to explain the reason for a general consensus 
that shafts of evening sunlight breaking through 
a clearing storm over Yosemite or the English 
Lake District make a beautiful scene, it quickly 
unravels. The point is that there is a consensus, 
and it shifts with time and fashion — and of 
course, from culture to culture. That beauty is in 
the eye of the beholder is only partly true at best. 


This "straight" photograph of St James's Palace 
in London displays several of the characteristics 
of formalism. The composition is considered, the 
essential architectural features are included, the 
verticals are correct, the detail is as sharp as only a 
large-format camera can make it, and the exposure 
and printing have been managed carefully to retain 
both shadows and highlights. 

Fashion is an extension of beauty, with more 
edge added. It is what is considered good, a little 
challenging (not too much), elitist, and above 
all now. Fashion, in photography as much as in 
clothing and make-up, is a way of challenging 
the existing order of appreciation — trying out 
something a little different (not usually radical) to 
see if other people will take it up. It is, therefore, 
slightly experimental, very much geared to being 
adopted, and of course highly competitive. 






The approach here, assembling 
a collection of resin models for 
perfume bottles, could be called 
constructivist. Most of the shapes 
are abstract in any case, and by 
including one recognizable bottle 
shape close to the center, the 
opportunity was left open simply 
to play with the geometry, using 
diagonals as a general theme. 



Another minimal approach in a different context uses frame shape, frame 
division, and the isolation of one small, pathetic bush to convey the emptiness 
of this bleak desert in northern Sudan. Includingthe small bush close to the 
camera enhances rather than diminishes the emptiness, and considerable 
thought was put into exactly where in the frame to place it — very slightly 
off center helps create a balance with the low sand hill behind. 


Rear-curtain flash, of which this is a typical example, has generated a relatively new 
kind of photograph that could almost be considered a style, even though it is in a 
sense a technical artifact. With an SLR, the flash can be triggered at the end of a time 
exposure rather than more normally at the beginning. Depending on the relative 
exposure of ambient lighting with inevitable motion blurand flash lighting, which 
effectively "closes" the movement, the mixture of blurand sharp detail is distinctive. 



Employing techniques of minimalism, the essence of this nineteenth- 
century linen shirt hanging in a Shaker meeting house in Kentucky has 
been conveyed with the least detail and fewest colors. All necessary 
information of texture and shape is available from little more than 
half of the garment, and the tight crop at left and top frames the 
scene. Bare simplicity characterizes this style of photography. 



In art criticism of all kinds, but possibly 
more so in photography, process has 
been given less attention than it deserves. 
Perhaps it is because the viewer, or critic, 
has to extrapolate backwards from the 
image to guess the situation and what 
went through the photographer's mind. 
This can be done, but it needs thorough 
practical knowledge. Here, photography 
becomes arguably more difficult to analyze 
than painting because the process is 
much shorter — often too short for the 
photographer to be completely aware of 
the steps at the time of shooting. 

This tends to confound art critics with 
limited personal experience. MoMA's John 
Szarkowski, writing about a well-known 
reportage shot by Mario Giacomelli, said: 
"Analysis was surely useless to Giacomelli 
duringthethin slice of a second during 
which this picture was possible, before 
the black shapes slid into an irretrievably 
altered relationship with each other, and 
with the ground and frame. It seems in fact 
most improbable that a photographer's 
visual intelligence might be acute enough 
to recognize in such a brief and plastic 
instant..." and so on. He concludes by 
invoking luck as a hidden ingredient, 
closing with the curious "...whether good 
or bad, luck is the attentive photographer's 
best teacher, for it defines what might 
be anticipated next time." It does not, 
of course. Good or bad, luck is simply 
a reminder that you are shooting in a 

world that does not bend to your control. 
Szarkowski's own photography, I should 
note, is of the deliberate, non-reactive kind. 

Many photographers simply say each 
shot derives from "intuition." Without 
denying the power of intuition, this chapter 
will investigate its foundation. Andre 
Kertesz has declared that from the start 
of his photography (in 1912, at age 20), 
"From the point of view of composition, I 
was ready. The very earliest thing I did was 
absolutely perfectly composed. Balance and 
line and everything were good, instinctively. 
This is not to my merit. I was born this way." 
Logically this would suggest that Kertesz 
did not refine or evolve his composition, but 
this is not true. He, like so many others, was 
simply not interested in examining his own 
process. Fortunately, some photographers 
of historical importance, including Cartier- 
Bresson, Ansel Adams, Walker Evans, Edward 
Weston, and Joel Meyerowitz did, and their 
analyses are useful — and used here. 

The term "photography" seems on the 
face of it to bring consistency to a wide 
range of subjects and ways of making 
images, but as an umbrella description 
it suggests more similarities in process 
than there actually are. The technology of 
camera and software may be common to 
the many different ways in which people 
shoot, but it does not go much farther. 
Between the extremes of reactive shooting 
in unpredictable situations, and the total 
control of a purpose-built studio, there is 

a huge difference in how photographers 
go about creating and composing images. 
The goal of a well-designed image may be 
the same, but the process is not. Reaction, 
as in street and news photography, tends 
to rely on intuition and experience (and 
because of the latter, generally gets better 
with time). In any case, the process has 
to be very fast, often allowing no time for 
thinking things through in a step-by-step, 
logical way. Deliberation, which is at the 
opposite end of the spectrum, and applies 
strongly in still-life and architectural 
photography, is slower and calls on powers 
of reflection and constant questioning. 
It is by no means less creative for being 
measured, but the creative energy is called 
up and used in a different way. 

In this chapter, I'll begin by looking at 
reactive photography; those occasions 
when anticipation and skill are put to 
the test. But what may be even more 
important is knowing in advance the kind 
of image you could make from a situation. 
When the scene does not impose itself, the 
photographer makes it fit into what I will 
call a "repertoire."This is a sort of mental 
image bank of what the photographer 
knows can be done and likes as a 
treatment. For me, it includes images that 
I made in the past and found satisfying. 
I now know that they work for me, and I 
keep them mentally in reserve — not to be 
copied slavishly, but as a kind of design 
template to adapt to any new situation. 




All the visual arts depend heavily on ordering 
the various elements according to the 
artist's preference, with the assumption that the 
visual impressions presented by the world are 
disordered and often chaotic. Photography is 
no exception. In fact, it requires more effort in 
organizing the image than do other arts, for the 
reason that the camera records everything in 
front of it. A painter selects from the view, but a 
photographer has to subdue, diminish, or hide 
the elements that are unwanted. Photographers' 
writings on this stress this time and again. 
Edward Weston, early in his career, in 1922, 
wrote that for photography, landscape was too 
"chaotic... too crude and lacking in arrangement," 
and it took him several years of work to meet the 
challenge. Ansel Adams wrote, "For photographic 
compositions I think in terms of creating 
configurations out of chaos, rather than following 
any conventional rules of composition." Cartier- 
Bresson called it "a rigorous organization of the 
interplay of surfaces, lines, and values. It is in 
this organization alone that our conceptions and 
emotions become concrete and communicable." 
The mountaineer-photographer Galen Rowell, 
writing specifically about a composition in Death 
Valley, begins with, "At first the scene appeared 
very jumbled to me...." He is about to leave, when 
he thinks again and returns: "The zones that had 
first seemed so jumbled now converged in strong 
diagonals that I was able to compose by moving 
my camera position back and forth." 

In Chapters 1 through 5 we have examined 
the tools available for imposing order on an 
image, and doing this would seem to be so 
basic that the questions of interest are to do 
with how and in what style. But what do we 
make of photography that appears to deny the 
organization of image components? We need 
to address this because a significant proportion 
of art photography from the 1960s onward 
does challenge these norms. It began with 
photographers such as Garry Winogrand and Lee 
Friedlander in America, and the identification 
of what art critics began to call the "snapshot 

aesthetic" (a term Winogrand, for one, hated). 
The critical argument for "informal" composition 
was that when used by non-photographers, the 
camera occasionally delivered "happy accidents," 
in which what would normally be seen as 
tilted camera angles and bad framing created 
interesting, unexpected juxtapositions and 
geometry. Sometimes artifacts like camera shake 
and flare would contribute, again "happily." In 
the hands of an expert, and made deliberately, 
vernacular composition could have artistic value. 

The critic Sally Eauclaire, writing on the 
Color Formalist photographer William Eggleston, 
typifies the view at the time: "In the careless 
cropping, negligent alignments, and imprecise 
exposures of amateur snapshots, Eggleston 
recognized potent effects that under his direction 
could produce mesmerizing contrasts and shifts 
of conventional emphases." More recently, 
Graham Clarke, on Lee Friedlander's composition 
in the image Albuquerque (1972), writes, "At first 
glance it appears as a bland and nondescript 
image, but then begins to resonate with a rich 
and profuse meaning... It resists any single focal 
point, so that our eye moves over and over the 
image without any point of rest, any settled 
or final sense of unity (and unitary sense and 
meaning)." Tellingly, he uses the very absence of 
apparent skill to justify the artistic value of the 
image. "Resonate" and "profuse meaning" are, of 
course, tell-tale signs that the art critic is avoiding 
analysis and invoking mysterious insight on the 
part of a viewing elite, in which the reader is 
invited somehow to participate. 

This is the argument, though of dubious 
logic. As we saw on pages 94-97, artifacts in 
photographs can work very well, but they do 
so by trading on what we know an accurately 
taken image should look like. In other words, 
to be successful and accepted, they can only be 
occasional. Willful disregard for the principles 
of composition and design can only be justified 
conceptually — by saying, in effect, "this is not 
a normal photograph." This, in fact, is how the 
snapshot aesthetic has developed in recent years, 


The aim here was to show a kindergarten 
with children using it, and to cram as much 
information as possible into the image. In other 
words, a recipe for a busy scene — perhaps too 
busy.The most obvious variable was expression 
and action from the children. This was what you 
would normally expect to make the difference 
between a good and an ordinary shot, and was 
the first priority. A member of staff was briefed 
to organize the children and encourage them 
into different activities; it was then a matter of 
observation and waiting. 

As usual, however, design can add an extra 
layer of improvement, as the sequence shows, in 
time order.The two final shots both successfully 
include all the necessary information (table, 
activities, playhouse, children, teacher) but in a 
graphically coherent way, precisely because they 
have structure. The major difference between 
the two is in the attitude — and so visual 
importance — of the boy closest to the camera. 

1. The initial shot, from a standing position, simply 
aims to take in the three major elements: children 
with teacher, table, and a chalet-style playhouse 
behind. The result is clear enough, acceptable, and 
a starting point for improvement. 

2. A first step towards looking for the strongest 
viewpoint and composition is to walk around 
the table. The painted mural is an alternative 
feature of interest to the playhouse, and one of 
the children has chosen to sit at the opposite 
side of the table. But the shot doesn't work, on 
more than one level. There are too many backs of 
heads; framing the boy between the heads means 
including the distractingly bare wooden wall at left; 
and not enough of the painting activity is visible. 

3. The next step was to try something more 
coherent on the opposite side of the table, using 
a closer view of the mural. Not obvious from the 
previous shot was the colorful rainbow pattern 
on this side. What is wrong here, however, is that 
even with a wide-angle lens, the other group of 
children is out of frame. 



4. This viewpoint made more sense. There is a good 
sense of depth from the boy in the foreground to the 
other children, and on to the chalet behind, and this 
gives the eye something to do-looking across the 
frame from one to the other. But can it be improved? 

5. A lower camera position does improve the shot, for 
two reasons. First, it puts us at the children's level, 
which is more involving. Second, it makes more of the 
rainbow pattern and, with the same wide-angle lens as 
used throughout, gives a more dynamic composition. 

6. The boy looked up and then swivelled round in his 
seat. The expression is good and holds the viewer's 
eye. In fact, both of these last two images are fine; the 

eye contact just makes this a different kind of picture. 
If we analyze this image, we can see that the eye-line 
straight out from the boy to the viewer makes it the 
strongest focus of attention. Faces always carry a 
strong visual weight, so that despite the various strong 
colors, the three other foci of attention are indeed 
the three faces on the opposite side of the table. The 
dynamics of the picture are strongly controlled by the 
curve of the table, emphasized by the rainbow colors 
and by the distorting effect of the 24mm efl lens, while 
the faces, yellow box, and blue window act as stops 
along the way. Then, once the viewer's eye has been led 
around the frame by this structure, it roams the picture 
to examine the various details, but always returns to 
the face of the boy. 


as self- referential questioning. Notably, many of 
those who work in this way identify themselves 
as artists who happen to use a camera, not as 
photographers. This is photography as conceptual 
art, and concept is being substituted for skill. 
Understanding this makes it easier to fit "artless 
composition" into the scheme of things, even 
though most traditional photographers dislike 
it. It is valid as art, but I would argue that it falls 
outside the canon of photography. 

It's important to note at this point that art 
photography increasingly has its own paradigm 
and its own rhetoric, not to mention lexicon. 
To a growing extent its aims and ideals are 
diverging from those of photography practised 
for professional or amateur reasons. This is 
not a criticism, but an observation that affects 
the way these two purposes of photography 
have to deal with each other. In this light, 
certain commentaries of art critics become 
less confusing. So, when Graham Clarke, in the 
Oxford History of Art's The Photograph, written 
in 1997, states that "The problem with Bresson 
is that his images confound the critical eye" and 
"Winogrand has the ability to freeze rather than 
make still a moment", both of which verge on 
the ridiculous to a photographer, the problem is 
solved when we realize that he is writing with the 
rhetoric of art criticism and most certainly not 
for photographers. Cartier-Bresson's images do 
not confound the photographer's eye; rather we 
admire his consummate skill. 


Insects in situ rarely present neatly organised images, 
but when the opportunity does arise, as with this 
dragonfly perched on the edge of a pointed leaf, 
framing and camera position can create order. First, 
the position was chosen for an exact head-on view; 
second, the shot was framed a little unusually to 
include the second, identical leaf. 


A medium telephoto view of a 
group of Italian rowers preparing 
to take part in a regatta. Color 
and machismo dominate the 
scene, and the longer focal 
length is good for compressing 
and concentrating on these. The 
problem again is structural, and 
for a while nothing presented 
itself as a real shot (top). As 
the men prepared, however, 
the crossed oars hanging loose 
showed potential for bringing 
order (above) and by moving to 
the right this helped finally to pull 
the final image (left) together. 






Fundamental to mainstream photography 
is the process of finding situations which 
can be resolved into meaningful images. Some 
images, in controlled situations, can of course 
be constructed, first in the imagination, then by 
assembling, removing, and making other physical 
changes. But when the situation is outside the 
photographer's control — as with street life in a 
city — images are potential, unknown, waiting 
to be put together by that special interaction 
between observer and reality that makes 
photography unique in the visual arts. 

Essential to an understanding of this process 
is the psychology of perception itself, and while 
there are different theories even today, the 
dominant ones derive largely from Hermann 
von Helmholtz (1821-1894). As explained by 
R. L. Gregory, they hold that the brain actively 
seeks to interpret the sensory input from the 
eye, and throws up hypotheses as to what is 
being represented. Now, photography takes 
perception a large step further — to the creation 
of a permanent image. The photographer not 
only has to perceive accurately, but to try and 
make the perceptions "fit" a coherent image 
that he or she knows (or believes) will work. 

As a photographer, you are essentially 
"hunting" for a photograph that meets your 
own creative needs yet is drawn from a fluid, 
evolving set of events. This is the essence of 
reportage, or photojournalism, and I want to 
begin with this, the most elusive and difficult area 
of photography, because to my mind it is one of 
the purest and most basic forms. Within much 
of professional photography it is highly admired 
precisely because it is so difficult to perform 
well. Some would argue that it is the ultimate in 
creative, expressive photography because it is a 
wonderful combination of the actuality of the 
world and the photographer's eye. 

There is frequently nothing to begin with as a 
likely image. This is not Monument Valley from a 
known vantage point, more likely a messy set of 
streets in a city somewhere. There is no guarantee 
that anything will come of the time you spend 

walking around — but anything that does will be 
entirely due to your own choosing. A great deal of 
self-determination is involved, because not only is 
this a "hunt", but it is one in which the prey — the 
final image — is determined only by you. It, the 
subject of the successful image, does not know 
that it is photogenic. 

This unplanned, reactive shooting of 
situations involving people's normal lives — this 
street photography, if you like — completely 
engages the photographer with the uncertainties 
and surprises of everyday life. This is the basis on 
which you can claim the purity of this form of 
photography, although this is clearly a sweeping 
and challenging statement. The way the argument 
runs is that the essence of photography is its 
direct optical relationship with the real world. 
However the camera is used, it takes from what 
is actually happening in front of it. There is 
no replay, no going back, and with any normal 
shutter speed, what is captured is from a moment 
in time and a single place. As Cartier-Bresson 
wrote, "...for photographers, what has gone 
has gone forever. From that stem the anxieties 
and strengths of our profession." Given this, 
the crux comes when the photographer has to 
react to whatever happens with no possibility 
of improving the odds by directing events or 
setting things up. It is in this sense that street 
photography has a purity. 

Those few reportage photographers who have 
articulated their working method tend to use real 
hunting analogies. Here is Cartier-Bresson again, 
the master of this genre: "I prowled the streets all 
day, feeling very strung-up and ready to pounce, 
determined to "trap" life — to preserve life in the 
act of living. Above all, I craved to seize, in the 
confines of one single photograph, the whole 
essence of some situation that was in the process 
of unrolling itself before my eyes." And Joel 
Meyerowitz, who began as a street photographer 
in New York: "It's all out there. Every day I would 
look out of my office at the action on the street, 
some thirty stories below, and I would wish I 
were out there. So, when I got my first camera, it 

seemed natural to go straight to the street. That 
was the stream. That's where the fish were." 

Not surprisingly, there is a physical 
accompaniment to this. Reportage photography 
is a very physical activity, and the process of 
hunting for images often involves a kind of 
"dance." Meyerowitz watched both Cartier- 
Bresson and Robert Frank at work on different 
occasions. About the former he wrote, "It was 
astonishing. We stood back a few paces, and we 
watched him. He was a thrilling, balletic figure, 
moving in and out of the crowd, thrusting 
himself forward, pulling back, turning away. 
He was so full of a kind of a mime quality. We 
learned instantaneously that it's possible to 
efface yourself in the crowd, that you could 
turn over your shoulder like a bullfighter doing 
a paso doble? And about Frank: " I think what 
moved me more than anything else was the fact 
that he was in motion while he was making still 
photographs. It seemed to me some kind of irony 
that you could flow and dance and keep alive, and 
at the same time chip things away and just cut 
them off. I liked the physicality of that." Robert 
Doisneau even made apologies for it: "I'm a little 
ashamed of my illogical steps, my gesticulations. 
I take three steps to this side, four to that side, 
I come back, I leave again, I think, I come back, 
then all of a sudden I get the hell out of the place, 
then I come back." 


Based on R. L Gregory's scheme for perception, 
in which conceptual and perceptual knowledge 
work actively at solving the problem of what 
the visual signals received by the eye represent. 
Perception is a constantly changing hypothesis 
as the mind tries to organize the signals into 
meaning. It is the result of top-down interpolation 
on bottom-up signal processing, with certain rules 
to organize acting from the side. In this model, the 
resulting photographic image can be thought of as 
"creative perception" — in other words, perception 
with an photographic end result. 






i j 









The subject here is the Sudanese religious 
and political leader Sadiq al-Mahdi, and 
the occasion his attendance at a mosque 
for Friday prayers. At this point, Sadiq 
is leaving the mosque, surrounded by 
supporters — an opportunity, if all works 
well, to catch gestures and expressions 
that may show the respect in which he 
is held. In the first shot (i), he is preceded 
by others, and this is a kind of ranging 
shot to prepare. I readjust my position 
closer to the exit (off-camera right), which 
I hope may give me a few seconds more 
for shooting. Exactly one minute goes by 
before the second shot (2), in this new 
position, again with other personalities. 
I zoom in very slightly from 17mm to 
20mm to crop tightly just above the heads. 
I note the silhouette of the supporter at far 
right against the open door — this makes 
a useful compositional stop on the right 
side of the frame. Now I'm ready. 

Rather less than a minute goes by before 
Sadiq emerges and I start shooting (3), 
concerned most of all that I get a clear 
shot of his face, not obstructed (as is very 
likely) by anyone approaching him from 
the left, across my field of view. I open 
back up to 17mm for safety of coverage. 
The fourth shot (4) is one second after 
this, me panning to the right — not so 
good, as Sadiq has his hand raised for 
a handshake, covering his face, and the 
foreground figure at left looks somehow 
disconnected from the event. The last 
shot (5) is more than lucky — one second 
later, I'm continuing to pan, stopping at 
the silhouetted man on the right side (I'm 
expecting this) and by good fortune all the 
figures are in place. The man on the right 
has his hands raised in a praying position, 
the one behind has his hand to his heart, 
and on the left is Sadiq's son, anchoring 
the left of the frame. 






This particular example is useful because it is relatively 
straightforward, focusing on one isolated subject, and 
with a successful outcome. Obviously shooting began 
only once the viewpoint had been found, but there 
were no on-the-spot deletions (which I sometimes do 
to avoid clogging up the memory card with useless 
images), so a reasonable record remains and the EXIF 
data gives the precise timing and changes to settings. 
The subject was a Japanese mendicant monk collecting 
at the entrance to a busy Tokyo station, spotted as I 
was leaving it. My interest was pigued because I once 
worked on a film, Baraka, that featured a similar monk, 
but I had never seen one in real life before. The interest 
was clearly going to be in the area of juxtaposing old 
and new, as such monks are now a rarity in modern 
Japan and represent cultural values at odds with those 
of Tokyo metropolitan street life. The initial rapid 
reaction and assessment went something like this, 
although not in seguence: 

• Rare, exotic species in contrasting environment 

• Need to find camera position that delivers a clear 
image because the dress and general appearance 
is unfamiliar; must avoid any confusion. Maybe a 
profile will do this best. 

• Will he move soon? How long do I have to get in 
position with the right focal length? 

• Outline will be key, perhaps almost a silhouette; 
backlit advertising panels may do this. 

• Two arguments for a longer focal length: if 
juxtaposition is the way to go, longer focal lengths 
usually work better than short, and as I may have 
to wait in order to get a juxtaposition, shooting 
from a distance will be more polite than from close. 

• The advertising displays may be sufficient for 
the juxtaposition of Zen tradition and modern 
consumerism, but I may get luckier and find a 
passerby who makes a stronger contrast. 

• Auto white balance will be OK (since I'm shooting 

in Raw, it can be altered later with ease). 

• The lens will need to be changed guickly (currently 
a wide-angle zoom is fitted), making sure vibration 
reduction is ON. 

• No need to dial up the ISO from 100, as the light level 
allows 1/160 sec to 1/00 sec shutter speed at f5.6. 

All of these thoughts occur on top of each other, and 
within a few seconds I've already begun to take the 
first important steps of moving to a position for a clear 
view from one side, then change the lens and check 
the settings. This is a busy concourse, so there will be 
freguent obstructions from passersby, but I can cope 
with that. The next guestion is framing. The feet seem 
important, suggesting a full-figure shot, but that might 
make the composition more untidy by including the 
ground. I need to fine-tune my position to juxtapose 
the head of the monk with the display panel behind; 
this takes a few seconds. Start shooting. 

i f 

00 min 00 sec - 00 min 27 

Start with frame-filling vertica 
using 24-120 mm zoom lens 
at 100 mm. Try pulling back 
to 75 mm. 

■•■ . til J 
1 V " ' 

* ■ JL -*-> 


ii ii 

■ ■ 

" ^^ 

1 QfilA- 

r H 

r * 



1 ■ 

00 min 38 sec - 00 min 41 sec 

See fashion advertizing on panel to right; might make more telling 
juxtaposition. Step to left and slightly forward, and reframe. 

00 min 52 sec - 00 min 57 sec 

A lower position will reduce the ground area appearing in shot; I crouch on my heels. At 57 seconds into 
the shoot, a man walks guickly into frame from right, holding cellphone and in silhouette. No chance to 
prepare for this, just shoot and hope the two figures (monk and man) remain separated in the frame. 

mm\ ^ 

01 min 20 sec - 02 min 28 sec 

The previous shot makes me think more about 
the traffic-and mobile phones as the hook for a 
juxtaposition. People coming toward camera right 
and in front of monk; I can get a second or two's 
warning for each person, and maybe I will get someone 
interesting, whatever that means. People from left and 
right across the foreground much more unpredictable, 
and make silhouettes, as I just discovered. Definitely 
don't want anyone looking at me, but there's nothing 
I can do about this, given the position I've chosen; 
fortunately, Japanese in public places tend not to make 
eye contact. But in the event, nothing much of interest 
passes through the area of the frame at right, in front 
of the monk, that I've left waiting for this. No exotic- 

looking people. At 2 minutes 24 seconds into shooting 
I get three figures in a line walking in a determined kind 
of way straight past the monk, ignoring him (as does 
everyone else). This might work, but a small uncertainty 
remains about whether one man looked straight to 
camera. No chance to check this immediately. I have 
another appointment, and start to think that I'll have 
to go with what I already have. Ansel Adams wrote, "... 
I have always been mindful of Edward Weston's remark, 
'If I wait for something here I may lose something better 
over there.'" So, one more "clean" shot, then check the 
previous one at magnification to see if the man made 
eye contact with me. Fortunately not. When I look up, 
the monk has gone. 

The result is that I have a choice of three shots: one 
"clean" without passersby, one with the silhouetted 
man talking on a cellphone, and the third of the 
three men walking in line. Over the next few weeks 
I come to prefer the one with the silhouetted man. 
So does the art director on my next book, but to my 
initial dismay she argues that she has to crop the 
shot severely in order to make it fit the page. This is 
always the next area for discussion and argument in 
photography that is taken for print publishing-book 
and magazine layouts have their own graphic 
dynamics. Pity that the feet got lost, but the main 
point of the image still gets across. In the final analysis, 
therefore, I had the shot that we ultimately chose 
guite guickly and only partly planned. The rest of the 
time was spent working towards an improvement 
which did not happen. This is perfectly usual. 


The model for searching for an image, 
described on the previous pages, has real 
practical importance in that the "repertoire" can 
be analyzed. Even if the visual processes involved 
in shooting are too rapid to be deliberated at the 
time, what you can do when not shooting is to 
review this mental library. 

My argument, based on the "active" theories 
of perceptual psychology, conversations with 
other photographers, and analyzing my own 
experiences, is that most photographers bring 
to a shooting situation a mental set of image 

types that they like. The illustrations here are 
an attempt to show a partial example of this, 
although I'm fully aware of the dangers of being 
too specific. The repertoire does not actually 
present itself (at least, not to me) as a stack 
of images, but more as a set of compositional 
possibilities — templates or schemas, if you like. 
In all probability, this is not one hundred percent 
conscious, and so these illustrations are too exact 
and specific. Nevertheless, with this in mind, they 
show the principle of bringing possibilities to the 
situation — basically, to see what fits. 

Needless to say, these are drawn from my 
own repertoire, and happened to be the first 
two dozen that I could think of in the abstract. 
The schemas are a kind of shorthand, and the 
accompanying photographs are examples from 
actual shoots. As you can see, images like that 
of the two Burmese monks on page 180 fit two 
possibilities at least. Most images, I suspect, fit 
a number of possibilities, and you can make 
an exercise of this by playing a kind of domino 
game — one schema fits one image, which in turn 
suggests another schema, and so on. 






















The repertoire of "images that are known to 
work" is the key to a high success rate when 
shooting quickly, but bringing it into play calls 
on a number of techniques that range from the 
practical to the observational. I even hesitate to 
call them techniques, because the word suggests 
a well-defined procedure, yet some of them are 
elusive. Here we are looking at tactics for rapid- 
reaction, unpredictable situations — how to 
prepare and how to exploit chance. Back again 
to Cartier-Bresson: "Photography is not like 
painting," he said in 1957. "There is a creative 
fraction of a second when you are taking a 
picture. Your eye must see a composition or an 
expression that life itself offers you, and you must 
know with intuition when to click the camera." 
He added that once missed, the opportunity 
was gone forever, a salutary reminder. 

I can think of four different areas of 
preparation: camera handling, observation, 
familiarity with compositional techniques, and 
state of mind. Probably the most straightforward 
part of the preparation is in dexterity at handling 
the camera so that it becomes, as more than one 
photographer has described it, an extension of 
the body, like any familiar tool. In the model 
for hunting for images on page 157, this means 
practice at the "sideways" input so that the 
controls can be applied faster and faster. The 
second type of preparation is in developing 
more acute observation of people and events — 
"situational awareness" (originally an aviation 
term) in other words — by constant attention 
and alertness. This can be practiced all the time, 
without a camera. The third, compositional skills, 
means trying out all the options described in the 
bulk of this book and deciding which suit you 
best. Finally, state of mind, probably the most 
difficult and elusive of the four, is highly personal, 
and requires finding ways of helping yourself to 
be alert and connected for a shoot. 

There are more esoteric methods of 
preparation, and one that perhaps deserves 
attention is Zen. Cartier-Bresson professed a 
Buddhist influence on his way of working: "In 

whatever one does, there must be a relationship 
between the eye and the heart. One must 
come to one's subject in a pure spirit." He also 
emphasized the goal, when photographing 
people, of revealing their inner look. In particular, 
he referred to the short but highly influential 
work Zen in the Art of Archery \ written by Eugen 
Herrigel. The author, a German, describes how 
he sought a closer understanding of Zen by 
studying archery under a Master, Awa Kenzo. The 
argument was that archery, with its intense focus 
of skill and concentration on a single instant of 
release in order to achieve a precise hit, could 
promote spiritual focus and "the ability to see 
true nature." The parallels between archery and 
fast-reaction photography are clear enough, 
both in what is trying to be achieved and in the 
concentration of focus. Zen training teaches 
a way through that leaps over the obstacles of 
deliberation and conceptualization. 

That said, a true practitioner of Zen would 
see it as an abuse and extremely trivial to use Zen 
in order to improve photography. Nevertheless, 
a significant number of photographers have 
expressed an almost spiritual communion 
between their consciousness and the reality 
around them while shooting, and this surely is 
not far from the spirit of Zen. Robert Frank 
spoke of identifying with the subject: "I watch a 
man whose face and manner of walking interest 
me. I am him. I wonder what's going to happen." 
For Ray Metzker, "As one is making images, 
there's this flow." 

Daisetz Suzuki, a famous Zen scholar of the 
twentieth century who provided the introduction 
to Herrigel's book, wrote, "If one really wishes to 
be master of an art, technical knowledge of it is 
not enough. One has to transcend technique so 
that the art becomes an 'artless art' growing out 
of the Unconscious." When we consider the role 
of instinct and intuition in finding and framing 
a shot, this rings true in photography. One of 
the goals of Zen is to expect the unexpected 
and adapt oneself to it, and this certainly has 
relevance to photography. 

An important concept here is a "letting go," 
an emptying of the mind that follows acquiring 
and honing the skills. From archery, a key text 
in an old archery manual, Yoshida Toyokazu 
tosho y lists the techniques and then says that 
they are not needed, but continues: "Not being 
needed does not mean that they are unnecessary 
from the beginning. At the beginning when one 
knows nothing, if the beginner does not first 
completely learn..." and so on. Herrigel, toward 
the end of his book, concludes that the student 
must develop "a new sense, or, more accurately, 
a new alertness of all his senses," which will 
allow him to react without thinking. "He no 
longer needs to watch with undivided attention 
... Rather, he sees and feels what is going to 
happen ... This, then, is what counts: a lightning 
reaction which has no further need of conscious 
observation." All this has direct application to 
reactive photography, and in particular can be 
a solution to a fairly common problem — that 
of missing shots by trying to think at the time 
of all the compositional and technical issues. 

The training involves two kinds of practice. 
The first is at learning and using the techniques, 
including all those in Chapters 1 through 5. 
The second is practice at maintaining a direct 
connection with the situation and subject, 
while clearing the mind of the much slower 
deliberations such as, "Where should I place this 
in the frame?" or "How closely should I align 
this edge to the side of the frame?" In summary, 
the procedure is "learn, empty, react," or at least 
"learn, put aside, react." In Zen in the Art of 
Archery, the Master exclaims, "Don't think of 
what you have to do, don't consider how to carry 
it out!" Herrigel learned, having acquired the 
technical skills through endless repetition, to 
detach himself, and wrote: "Before [the task] the 
artist summons forth this presence of mind and 
makes sure of it through practice." 




For street photography, India is notable not only 
for the wealth of events and animation, but for the 
extreme alertness of people in the streets. If the aim 
is to shoot without having anyone in frame looking 
at the camera, almost the only way is to frame the 
shot in the mind's eye and then raise the camera 
and shoot all in one motion. 


A troupe of classical Khmer dancers were preparing 
themselves for a performance in an Angkor temple. 
The situation allowed time to explore with the 
camera, and because the usual make-up and 
dressing was fairly predictable, I was looking exactly 
for odd and clearly unposed moments like this. 


The timeframe available for making this shot, of a 
Thai woman carrying traditional brooms, was so 
short that I had little idea if it would be well framed. 
While I was concentrating on something else, I saw 
her moving quickly behind me out of the corner of 
my eye, and had time only to swing right round and 
shoot without thinking. 




The less control you have over a shooting 
situation, the more valuable it is to have 
an idea of what may happen next. Though 
largely irrelevant in studio work and other 
kinds of constructed photography, it is hugely 
important in reportage. Anticipation is a skill 
that goes much deeper than photography, and 
draws mainly on observation and a knowledge 
of behavior. Using it for photography gives it 
a particular edge, because the aim is not just 
to work out how a situation might unfold and 
how a person may react, but how the results 
will work graphically. The example opposite, 
from a cattle camp in southern Sudan, shows 
this combination. The aim is always to translate 
the event into an organized image. As Henri 
Cartier-Bresson put it, "To take photographs 
means to recognize — simultaneously and 
within a fraction of a second — both the fact 
itself and the rigorous organization of visually 
perceived forms that give it meaning." 
Therefore, there are two strands to 
anticipation. One is concerned with behavior 
and action, and also the way in which things 
move across the field of view and the light 
changes. This can be honed by staying focused 
and attentive, and by practice. The other 
strand is graphic, predicting how shapes, 
lines, and all the other elements that we saw 
in Chapters 3 through 5 will shift and come 

together in the frame, and the way to improve 
this is to keep in mind as many types of 
successful image composition as possible — the 
repertoire on pages 162-163, in other words. 

On the behavioral front, the number 
of situations is infinite, but there are some 
identifiable types. There is a general situation in 
one location, of the kind described particularly 
well by the French reportage photographer 
Robert Doisneau: "Often, you find a scene, a 
scene that is already evoking something — either 
stupidity, or pretentiousness, or, perhaps, charm. 
So you have a little theatre. Well, all you have to 
do is wait there in front of this little theatre for 
the actors to present themselves. I often operate in 
this way. Here I have my setting and I wait. What 
I'm waiting for, I don't know exactly. I can stay 
half a day in the same place." There is a specific 
type in which the shot as framed is good provided 
that some element, such as a person, moves into 
a particular position. Another type is focused 
on a subject that you have already identified but 
which is not yet graphically a picture — imagine 
that, in wildlife photography, you have found the 
animal but the shot depends on it moving into 
a particular view. When photographing people, 
expression and gesture form yet another class. 


This example involved seeing a potential subject, 
knowing what was going on, and spotting a 
possible juxtaposition — with just enough time to 
move into position and shoot. This was a Mandari 
cattle camp, where young men and boys live with 
the cattle for part of the year, at a distance from the 
village. Cattle play an important social and cultural 
role, as well as an economic one, in this ethnic 
group in southern Sudan. The animals have names, 
and a fine pair of horns is particularly prized. The 
location was ripe with image possibilities and I 
already had a number of successful shots. 

-7— — p^ 


|^^^ — ^»_. lr" 



A common class of situation in photography, 
particularly street photography, is when you can 
see a potential picture that has a strong setting, 
but which will be lifted a notch higher by a person, 
or people, walking into the frame.This view of 
a traditional narrowboat moored on a canal in 
the heart of Birmingham, England, had most of 
the elements needed, and the footbridge above 
added interest. Visually, however, the weight of 
the boat needed ideally to be balanced by a group 
of people above. How long you are prepared 
to wait for passersby in the hope that you will 
get just the right ones is another matter. 



1. 1 spotted the boy pulling the calf along-a potential 
picture, depending on what he was going to do and 
where he would pass. 

2. Looking ahead of him, to the left, I guessed that he 
was taking the calf to the mother for suckling, but as 
my eye travelled to this cow, I saw that there was a 
very good pair of horns on the way. Would the boy pass 
in such a way that I could frame him? If so, the shot 
would have the added value of making a point about 
the importance of cattle. 

3. 1 guickly realized two things. One was that I needed 
to step forward and to the right to get the horns large 
in the frame (and adjust the zoom focal length to suit). 
The other was that the bull with the horns might turn 
his head to the right as the boy passed. I moved into 
position, and fortunately the bull did move its head. 



Exploration becomes possible when we expand 
the timescale a notch up from a pure reaction 
situation. While you could justifiably argue that 
reactive photography is a kind of fast exploration, 
when there is more time, as in these examples, 
more coherent thought is possible. 

There are different types of exploration. One 
is when the subject is a clearly defined physical 
object and there is time enough to move around 
it, or move it around, looking for different angles, 
lighting, and so on. This commonly happens in 
still-life photography, but also, as in the example 
opposite, with any kind of discrete physical 
object such as a building, or a person. Another 
is when the general subject is a place and the 
photographer travels around it, and the area 
can range greatly in size — from, say, a garden 
to a national park. A third is when a localized 
situation occurs over a period of time — a 
prolonged event, in other words — and this 
could be, for example, a football game, a street 
demonstration, or a ceremony of some kind. We 
could categorize these if we wished, into physical, 
spatial, and temporal, although there is plenty 
of opportunity for overlap; in the case of the 
windmill, partly physical, partly spatial. 

The means for exploring range even 
more widely, and potentially draw on all the 
compositional methods that we have already 
examined. The viewfinder, or in the case of many 
digital cameras, the LCD screen, is the primary 
tool, and one of the most common, and useful, 
ways of exploring with a camera is to move 
around while looking through the viewfinder 
to see the continual changes of framing and 
geometry — active framing, in other words. 
With a static subject (rather than an event), the 
basic way of exploring is spatial. Changing the 
viewpoint is the one action that alters the real 
perspective in a photograph. That is, it alters the 
actual relationship between the different parts 
of a scene. Its effectiveness, therefore, depends 
on how much of the scene you can see as you 
move, and this naturally favors wide-angle lenses 
— and only a small change of viewpoint is needed 

with a wide-angle lens for a substantial change 
to the image. The juxtaposition effects that 
make telephotos so valuable are controlled by 
viewpoint, but with a long lens you need to move 
farther to see the relationship change. Zoom 
lenses offer an extra permutation, to the extent 
that moving around a scene while also altering 
the focal length of the zoom can often be too 
complicated — that is, offers too many levels of 
change to deal with comfortably. 

With a single object, viewpoint determines its 
shape and its appearance. Moving closer alters the 
proportions of its different parts, as the sequence 
of the windmill demonstrates. Its circular base is 
hardly noticeable in the distant pictures, but in 
the closest shot it makes up a good third of the 
building and is an important contrasting shape 
to the diagonal sails. Moving around a subject 
gives even greater variety: the front, sides, back, 
and top. 

The viewpoint controls the relationship 
between an object and background, or two 
or more objects, in two ways: position and 
size. Simply the action of bringing two things 
together in one frame suggests that there is a 
relationship between them; this is a major design 
tool. Relationships depend on who chooses to 
see them, and what one photographer may see 
as significant, another may ignore or not even 
notice. The sequence of the Acropolis on pages 
170-171 is a case in point. Isolating it with a 
telephoto lens at sunrise places it deliberately out 
of context; all relationships have been deliberately 
avoided to give a timeless a view as possible: the 
historical version. The last view, by contrast, 
makes a point of juxtaposition; a decidedly 
unromantic relationship between the Acropolis 
and a modern city. 

Even when a photographer feels disinclined 
to make more effort, there is often a sense of 
duty to cover all the bases. Cartier- Bresson wrote 
that even when the photographer has the feeling 
that he or she has caught the strongest shot, 
"nevertheless, you find yourself compulsively 
shooting, because you cannot be sure in advance 

exactly how the situation, the scene, is going to 
unfold." On top of that, of course, you cannot 
afford to leave any gaps because the situation 
will never be repeated. 

Ultimately, exploration has to be limited, 
which means that the photographer has to choose 
when to stop. This is by no means always an easy 
conclusion, as it not only involves deciding when 
you have exhausted the possibilities (like many 
activities, photography can be subject to the law 
of diminishing returns, with fewer and fewer 
benefits from more and more time spent), but 
also whether time will be better spent moving 
on and finding another subject. 


The example here is a windmill in a rural setting, and 

with a pronounced wide-angle effect. 

1. We begin with a medium-distance view, from a little 
less than 300 feet (90 meters) away. The whiteness of 
the windmill is particularly striking, and in an attempt 
to keep the graphic elements simple, this first shot is 
framed to exclude the surroundings, to make a high- 
contrast, blue-and-white image. The sky is a particularly 
deep blue, which should, and does, make a powerful 
contrast with the windmill. It also seems possible to 
make something out of the whiteness that is shared by 
the clouds and the windmill. In the event, the picture is 
only a partial success. They symmetry of the windmill 
encouraged a central placement in the frame, but it 
does not balance the two areas of cloud as well as it 
might. Also, placing the windmill low in the frame, to 
avoid seeing the surroundings, gives too much sky. 

2. The second shot has more normal proportions and 
more careful organization. The intention is the same as 
in the first photograph, but works better. The viewpoint 
is closer, so that the windmill fills more of the frame 
and is off-centered to give a better balance, and has 
been moved to the right, so that the windmill just 
occupies the space between the clouds. 

3. The potential of a symmetrical image remains. 
To make the most of this, the viewpoint is changed 
so that it is exactly facing the front of the windmill. 
Moving closer to remove the clouds from view reveals 
an interesting distortion of the base; its curve makes 
a pleasant contrast of shape with the triangular 
structures above, and still contributes to the symmetry. 

4. From this, the camera position is changed radically, 
to as distant a view as possible, while maintaining the 
windmill as the focus of attention. This is the classic 
depth-enhancing use of a wide-angle lens, showing as 
much of the foreground as the depth of field allows. To 
this end, the camera position is low, and the windmill 
placed high towards one corner. 

5. In the same position as the previous shot, the 
camera is tilted so that the horizon is much lower in 
the frame, revealing the sky and tree cover. 

6. The last photograph in the seguence is basically 
the same type of shot, but with an improvement in 
the location. A new viewpoint has been chosen which 
shows more distinctive detail in the foreground, to 



L3 l?Ui A4 





In this example, over the course of several days, the 
Acropolis in Athens, and specifically the Parthenon, 
the central building, was photographed from every 
useful viewpoint, and the lens focal length chosen to 
suit each view. In order to be able to make full use of 
the extremes of focal length, it is important to find a 
subject that is visible from a distance. 

1. The first shot is with a wide-angle lens (20mm efl) 
from close, and makes a deliberately pronounced graphic 
arrangement-triangular, using the typical exaggeration 
of converging verticals from a wide-angle lens. 

2. The second photograph is from the ideal middle- 
distance camera position-a helicopter, flying in the 
early morning. This, naturally, took a great deal of 
trouble to arrange, and this shot is just one of many 
from different heights and angles. 

3. Then, from a distance. Whereas the close view 
experimented with shape and line, and the medium 
view is more documentary, the third photograph 
deliberately sets out to give a romantic, atmospheric 
impression of the Acropolis, isolated from its modern 
surroundings. To this end, a telephoto lens gives 

a selective view, and the dawn lighting conceals 
unnecessary modern details in a silhouette. With a 
longer focal length from the same viewpoint, the 
graphic possibilities are explored: these are chiefly 
blocks of tones and horizontal and vertical lines. 

4. From exactly the same position during the afternoon, 
a different approach was tried, using a wide-angle lens 
to set the Acropolis in the context of the surrounding 
landscape, with plenty of sky. Although it appears tiny 
in the frame, the brilliant white of the stone helped it 
to stand out. With this treatment, making use of the 
foreground, even the city is diminished in relationship 
to the overall setting. 

5. Finally, to make a distinct contrast with modern 
Athens, a viewpoint was chosen to show the very 
ordinary, drab streets that surround the Acropolis, 
and the composition gives them prominence. 

A standard lens was used to give the feeling that 
this is a normal view, such as a passerby might 
glimpse while walking along. 





Another kind of exploration is over an 
extended period of time. Ansel Adams 
wrote, in relation to his chosen field, landscapes, 
"Repeated returns may be more rewarding than 
prolonged waiting for something to happen at 
a given spot." This clearly makes more sense 
in the photography of place than most other 
subjects, but it brings with it a new set of issues 
and expectations. With a landscape, what the 
photographer expects to have changed is the 
lighting in the short term, and perhaps seasonal 
variations over a few months. But the unexpected 
becomes more likely as time goes by and as more 
of the hand of man is evident. The exploration of 
one subject over a period of time takes on a very 
different form from the single- session exploration 
that we began with. In addition to unpredictable 
changes that might include demolition and new 
construction in the manmade landscape, we 
should also factor in our own changing attitudes. 
What appeals to a photographer at one point in 
time might at a later date seem boring. 

There is considerable risk in actually relying 
on a return to deliver an improvement, not 
least because the combination of things that 
first attracted a photographer's attention with 
the possibility of making an image can be quite 
a subtle mix, and may simply not be there 
at another time. This is especially true when 
unpredictable lighting is involved. Actually relying 
on a return visit to produce results is out of the 
question, which is why most photographers in 
these situations quickly learn to shoot what they 
can at the time. The two examples here illustrate 
how idiosyncratic any return experience can be. 


My first visit to the Bayon-an important temple of 
more than 50 face-towers in Angkor, Cambodia-was 
in August, the rainy season. At no time in the week's 
shooting was there any interesting light for this kind 
of overall view, and while close-ups of the face-towers 
were effective, the temple from this distance tends to 
appear as a jumble of masonry, and really needs the 
help of a low sun (1 and 2). The only reason why these 
first two shots were taken at all was because there 


was no alternative. I returned four months later to face 
a different lighting issue. Even in clear weather, the 
surrounding trees cut off direct sunlight until almost 
mid-morning from the east, and at least an hour before 
sunset from the west (3). Unsatisfactory, with a dark 
mass at the bottom and a boring sky. On another return, 
some years later, I was finally able to get the help of 
clouds, and had decided that black and white, with its 
focus on texture and modeling, was a better idea (4). 






Purely for this book, and without any particular 
expectations, I returned to the site of the windmill 

shown on page 169, 27 years later to the month (June). 
In 1979 the weather and lighting had been so specific- 
unusually clear, bright and contrasty, with a passage 
of fair-weather cumulus-that they had completely 
created the opportunity. At the same time of year, the 
weather now was more typical of an English summer, 
and less special. The softer light and whiter sky, and 

the fact that the sails had been turned in another 
direction invalidated the same viewpoints, and I made 
an extended recce of the area for a different view. The 
only possibility was from the area to the east, farther 
away, with a stream running through a field. Nearby 
turned out to be a chosen spot for local painting 
groups. An additional issue was a new house that did 
nothing for the scene and yet was highly visible from 
this direction. This limited the viewpoints to those from 

where it would be concealed by vegetation-notably 
a small tree. With this kind of weather, I fell back on 
traditional lighting-low sun-and this meant an into- 
the-light shot in the evening. The recce was at midday; 
I returned at 1900 hours. The back-lighting placed more 
of the interest on the texture of the surroundings and 
less on the windmill, which suggested a wide-angle shot 
that made use of the foreground. The day highlighted 
how special had been the original circumstances. 


At the far end of the scale from fast-reaction 
street photography is the deliberate, time- 
consuming process of shooting static subjects with 
the camera on a tripod. Still-life and architecture 
are the two subject areas that most embody 
this kind of composition, in which the image 
is constructed, either through selecting and 
positioning the subjects themselves (as in 
still-life) or by carefully exploring the camera 
viewpoints in relation to lens focal length. 
Or both. 

Having the time and facility to work on 
image composition like this does not necessarily 
make it easier than reportage. Rather, the skills 
are different, and require prolonged attention 
and a rigorous and thoughtful approach. Stephen 
Shore, describing his large-format pictures of 
American urban settings, compared the process 
with fly-fishing and the unwavering attention 
needed to feel the end of the line. "Without 
constant pressure the timing falters, and so does 
the fly line, leaving the caster with a disconnected, 
where-did-it-go feeling. Of course, it's very 
possible to take pictures without constantly 
paying attention to every decision that needs 
to be made, but my experience was that when 
my attention wandered and I started making 
decisions automatically, there was something 
missing in the pictures and I was left with that 
where-did-it-go feeling." 

This is an instructive passage because 
it expresses very accurately the complexity 
of organizing a detailed image with many 
interlocking components. To viewers accustomed 
to more spontaneous kinds of photography, the 
painstakingly ordered still-life or architectural 
view may at first appear cold and overcalculated. 
In actuality, there is a constant stream of intricate 
and intuitive decisions to be made, most of which 
spring up during the process with a domino-like 
effect on other parts of the image. What Shore 
describes is the need for total concentration, and 
the need for absolute rigor. 

Spacing to 
edge of frame 

Grains and wrapping bits 
important for balance, but 
must look natural, not contrived 

or separate? 

Spacing to edge of frame 

Difficult to maintain this 
narrow separation 

Gap becomes undulating 
ribbon shape 


The parameters for this still-life are almost 
ludicrously simple — an expository shot of 
traditionally wrapped Chinese tea, bound in 
dry leaves, on a plain white background with no 
props. Yet, even with such a minimal intention, 
many interlocking compositional decisions 
accumulate, not all of them possible to resolve 
completely. The main decisions were: 

A few scattered 
grains to fill 
this corner 

• To have several rather than one, with one opened to 
show contents. 

• The undulating rhythm of bound segments is worth 
exploiting, but avoiding symmetry. 

• There is a need to find an informal arrangement that 
occupies the frame and has some dynamic interest. 

• Opening one reveals even more interesting 
undulations and repeated wave-like patterns. 

• I decided to contrast neatness of wrapped units with 
crumbling disorder of the open one. 


• Loose clumps and grains of tea can be used to balance otherwise 
empty areas of the frame, but this must look natural, not placed. 

• Positioning units close makes it possible to work on a figure-ground 
relationship in which the spaces between become sinuous curves, 
by offsetting one against the other vertically. Because of this, they 
must not touch. 

• The horizontal spacing thus becomes important. The opened unit has 
a pronounced curve, which makes a broader central gap inevitable, 
and for a while I consider replacing it with another, but finally decide 
that this looks more natural and in any case makes an attractive 
divergence with its wrapping on the right. 

• A small but continuous separation of the separated wrapping on the 
left of the opened unit would have been ideal, but the configuration 
of the brittle leaves makes this impossible. 

» The relative weights of mid-tone wrapping, near-black balls of tea, 
scattered grains of tea and red label need to be considered and balanced. 

• Finally, the distances between the objects and the frame edges need 
adjustment, through framing and/or cropping. 


As an exercise, it's worth looking at possible variations 
in positioning of a key element in this still-life, which 
shows work in progress on an illuminated manuscript. 
The dried salamander is a specimen being used in an 
illustration, and the intention was to place it in the 
upper part of the image. In reality, framing and the 
arrangement of the different sheets of paper and 
manuscript would be adjusted at the same time, but 
these alternatives for the salamander show some 
of the detailed decisions that need to be made. For 
example, should the creature and its shadow (the 
long shadow is integral) fit neatly within a blank area, 
as in 3, or does this seem annoyingly contrived? Yet 
the composition is necessarily contrived in any case. 
Breaking lines, as in 4, might seem more natural, 
with less artifice. Intent, in other words, plays a role 
even in the minutiae of refinements in composition. 

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Buildings, street scenes, and landscapes often make 
heavy demands on finding the exact camera position, 
with several compromises needed and a final 
position measured in inches. For this photograph of 
a new Japanese villa in the hills above Hiroshima, 
with its minimally designed garden, the decision 
to go for a symmetrical view made the work even 
harder — precision became integral to the image. 




Photography relies hugely on the simple 
compositional device of bringing two or 
more subjects together in the frame. I say hugely 
because of our innate tendency to assume a 
relationship between things seen side by side. At 
the very least, juxtaposition brings two things to 
our attention at the same time, and as soon as the 
viewer starts to wonder why the photographer 
chose that viewpoint, and if the juxtaposition 
was intentional, this sets off a train of thought. 

There are two sources for juxtaposition, 
although one inevitably triggers effects on 
the other, and these are the content and the 
graphics. Perhaps "motives" might be a better 
term than "sources," because in the first case the 
initiative comes from subject, and in the second 
the inspiration more often comes from chance 
appearances (as in, for example, the reflection of 
one thing in a window through which can also 
be seen a second subject). The two, content and 
graphics, are never completely separated. 

The amount of deliberation can vary 
enormously, from a planned expedition to find 
a way of juxtaposing two subjects, to spur-of- 
the-moment coincidences, and if the final image 
is the only thing that a viewer sees, in itself it is 
not at all a reliable indicator. The examples here, 
described in more detail, cover this range. The 
reflection shot of the mountains was planned days 
in advance, while the cellphone advertisement 
was seen and shot within seconds. 


At Shibuya crossing in central Tokyo, the entire 
facade of this building is a digital display. At one 
point in the sequence, a giant eye appears, with the 
obvious Big Brother inference. Framing the image 
like this, with the eye at the top and a Starbucks 
coffee shop below, exploits this possibility. 




Content came first in this shot of a snow-covered 
ridge reflected in the silverwork of a Rolls-Royce. The 
distinctive emblem is that of a hotel in St Moritz, 
Badrutts Palace, and the aim was to combine it 
with the mountains. Simple in concept, this was 
more difficult in execution, demanding a particular 
alignment. Several positions for the car were tried 
around the area before settling on this, and even 
then the car had to be moved around several times. 
The exact combination of lens focal length and 
camera position took time to find, and this needed 
to be done well in advance of sunset. Minimum 
aperture ensured maximum depth of field. 


In northern Sudan, the poster seemed quite out of 
place for the raggedy street market, though not 
worth photographing just for this reason. However, 
the position and lighting of the contrasting second 
face — that of the merchant — madetheshot.lt 
depended on tight cropping to exclude anything 
else and, of course, on speed. I was highly visible, 
and within a second or two the man would look 
directly at me, at which point the shot would lose 
almost all its value as far as I was concerned. 


In a Jie village in southeastern Sudan, arms are 
common because of rivalry with other ethnic 
groups. As a teenage girl grinds sorghum, a 
Kalashnikov assault rifle lies casually propped 
nearby. Juxtaposition here involved simply 
moving close to the rifle and using a wide- 
angle lens, adding depth to the content. 




Images behave differently in groups, juxtaposed, 
than when displayed individually. In a sense, 
a new kind of image is created — one in which 
the frame is a gallery wall or a two-page spread 
in a magazine or book, and the few or several 
images themselves become picture elements. The 
arrangement can be time-based or spatial, or a 
mixture of the two, and according to the medium 
the viewer has more, or less, choice in the order of 
seeing the photographs. A slideshow is inflexible 
and highly controlled, while a magazine or book 
allows the reader to flick backward and forward. 
One of the classic uses of photographs in an 
assembly is the picture story, and some of the best 
examples come from the heyday of large-format, 
general-interest illustrated magazines, from the 
early days of the Munchner Illustrierte Presse and 
Ilustrated Weekly in London, to Life, Picture Post 
and Paris-Match. Well executed, the picture story 
is a complex entity, involving not just the talents 
of the photographer, but of the editor, picture 
editor, and designer. The individual visual unit is 
the "spread" (a double-page layout), and it is the 
sequencing of spreads that gives the picture story 
both its narrative and dynamic flow. 

From the point of view of shooting, the 
knowledge that the end product will be a 
grouping of images introduces new demands, but 
perhaps eases the pressure on getting one single 
all- encompassing shot. Only very occasionally do 
all the important elements in a complex situation 
come together in a single composition, and when 
they do, this is often noteworthy enough for the 
photographer to breathe a sigh of relief. Dorothea 
Lange wrote about one of her iconic images of 
the Depression that it was one of those occasions 
when "you have an inner sense that you have 
encompassed the thing generally." The alternative, 
if the aim is telling a story, is to shoot different 
aspects of it as a set of images. Cartier-Bresson 
likened a typical situation to a "core" with sparks 
being struck off it; the sparks are elusive, but can 
be captured individually. 

There are technical matters such as knowing 
that the "gutter" between two facing pages can 


There are as many ways of hanging groups of prints 
in a gallery show as there are curators, and this is 
just one incidental example. Once the images have 
been decided upon, and framed, what remain are 
the permutations of grouping. Here, consideration 

was given to a coincidence of color and form — two 
red-robed Burmese novice monks over the vertical 
red reflection of the sun in the Mekong River, both 
images from a show on Asia. The lower picture is 
used differently in the layout on page 182. 




An example of a picture story in book form constructed by editors at 
Time-Life Books: five double-page spreads on a theme of the life of the 
seafaring inhabitants of the remote Sulu archipelago in the southern 
Philippines.The book was a 160-page volume on Southeast Asia in the 
series Library of Nations, in which the construction was six chapters, 
one for each country or group, interleaved with picture essays like this. 
Each essay is a glimpse in detail at one specific aspect of what had been 
covered in the preceding chapter, and this one was chosen, unplanned, 
on the strength of what emerged during the long shoot. In all, eight 
images were selected from a total take of around 400 useful frames. 



ruin a centrally composed image, and editorial 
ones such as the need for graphic variety, and 
the need for vertical images to fill full pages. 
We can extend this use of assembled images to 
illustrated books, where there is greater variety 
of style than in magazines and more pages to 
expand a story. The spread remains the visual 
unit, but in the case of a highly illustrated book 
(that is, mainly images with little text), the 
large number of pages introduces more of a 
time sequence. In other words, there is likely to 
be more of a sense of seeing images one after 
another rather than side by side. The dynamics of 
sequencing are subtly different from the spatial 
relationship on one spread left open. An extra 
component is the captions, and these need to 
work together, typically long enough to provide 

a kind of interleaved text narrative. Caption 
writing is an editorial skill in its own right, but 
again, the importance for us is in how it changes 
the viewer's perception of the image by directing 
attention to one element or another, as we saw 
on pages 140-143. 

The classic picture story is just one of the 
ways in which photographs achieve a new life 
when combined. The other important one is 
a gallery show; pictures framed and hung on 
a wall. Time-based collections of images are 
sequences such as slide shows, whether shown 
as an event or offered online. In all of these, the 
graphic relationships tend to impact more than 
relationships of content (first-glance syndrome), 
and this places a special importance on color, 
which if strong registers very rapidly on the 

eye. The color relationships between the several 
images impose their own structure. Sequence 
is always involved in whatever form they are 
displayed, because the eye travels from one to 
another. Because the units of color are entire 
images, the juxtaposition of photographs tends 
to favor those with a dominant color. 


Of the endless ways of combining images on a 
page, one that art directors seem to like to use 
when the circumstances permit is embedding 
one in the relatively feature I ess area of another. 



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J'.Z' fl 






Both of these photographs, of 
Greek Evzones (palace guards) on 
parade were shot from the same 
position with the same 400mm 
lens, several seconds apart. A 
greater distance separated the 
officer from the soldiers than 
appears here, as the art director 
allowed the gutter to reduce the 
separation visually. 




Digital photography has created, more than 
anything else, a culture of post-production. 
To those brought up to respect the purity of the 
moment as captured and the frame as the sacred 
boundary of the image (printing the rebates — the 
frame edges — in the final image is the clearest 
expression of this cult), this may seem anathema. 
But the argument to counter this reaction is that 
digital post-production returns the photographer 
to the days of black and white as the only medium, 
with the darkroom as the place where images were 
made special. Of course, post-production is open 
to abuse, but another way of looking at this is that 
it throws photographers back on their sense of 
what is right and what is wrong. To my mind this 
is no bad thing at all — it's a way of saying "take 
full responsibility." 

The range of post-production activities 
is potentially huge, and this is not the place 
to list them, but what is useful is to attempt a 
subdivision into the kinds of procedure that 
photographs are put through in the computer. 
The minimum is optimization, and the maximum 
is total manipulation to the extent that the image 
no longer resembles the original. These may seem 
like clear definitions, but in practice they conceal 
many shades of decision, purpose, and effect. 

A general definition of optimization is 
"the procedures to make a system or design as 
effective or functional as possible." Translated into 
photography, this means preparing the image as 

shot to the best of its technical potential. Typically, 
the procedures include setting black and white 
points to present the dynamic range to its best 
advantage, adjusting contrast, color temperature, 
hue, brightness, and saturation, and removing 
artifacts such as noise and dust specks. Even this, 
however, raises such questions of interpretation as 
how bright, how colorful, how contrasty? Moving 
on to greater changes calls for reassessment, 
which may include questioning the nature of 
photography itself, certainly when out-and- 
out special effects are involved. All of this, from 
optimization up to rearranging the content of the 
image, falls on what I call a "scale of intervention," 
and how far along that scale a photographer is 
prepared to go is an important decision. 

Ethical issues are now in sharper focus 
than ever before, because all constraints have 
been removed. Manipulating images, whether 
openly for special effects, as in advertising, or 
clandestinely to fool the viewer, has always gone 
on, but demanded great effort. Now, Photoshop 
and other software allow anything to be changed 
in an image, and the only limitation is the visual 
judgement of the computer user. In the early 
days of digital photography, a number of critics 
bemoaned the whole idea, as if the only thing 
holding photographers in check from cheating 
constantly was technical difficulty. In reality, trust 
in the inherent truthfulness of the medium was 
simple-minded, as meaningless as believing that 

words are truthful in themselves. Quite apart 
from early feats of retouching that included 
printing other skies onto landscape scenes and 
removing purged Communist Party officials 
from propaganda photographs, there was also 
falsification of the subject and event. The debate 
continues around one famous image, by Robert 
Capa, of a Republican soldier in the Spanish Civil 
War falling, apparently at the moment of being 
shot in battle. There are strong arguments that 
this was in fact posed during training. 

One of the major effects of post-production 
on process is the ways in which it can affect the 
shooting. Knowing what can later be done to an 
image inevitably affects the decisions made at the 
time of capture. At the very least, for example, 
faced with an unknown color temperature 
or a difficult exposure situation, most digital 
photographers would opt to shoot in Raw format, 
confident that this will give more choice in 
recovering a technically satisfactory image. Or 
imagine another case, in which the subject is a 
view intermittently interrupted by passing people, 
when what the photographer wants is an image 
with no-one in sight. A traditional solution would 
be to return at a time when the site was empty, but 
a digital solution would be to shoot several frames 
with the passers-by in different positions, then 
in post-production make a layer stack of these 
and selectively delete the people. In ways like this, 
digital photography can change the way we shoot. 




An invasive style of post-production, but still 
arguably within the bounds of honesty and 
realism, is demonstrated by a series of frames 
of a Roman ruin at Ephesus, Turkey, shot as a 
solution to the horde of (unwanted) tourists. In 
this post technique, several frames are layered 
in register, then selectively erased to remove 
the people. This method is intrinsically more 
acceptable than cloning in that the patches 
brought to the front were actually captured. 


Raw format preserves the original data as captured 
and permits a higher dynamic range to be recorded 
(depending on the sensor), making it the file format 
of choice for post-production. Color temperature, 
hue shifts, contrast, and several other settings 
can be assigned later, rather than at the time of 
shooting. As this example illustrates, images can 
be optimized in a variety of ways to suit individual 
taste.The original settings, as opened in the Raw 
editor, have low contrast and an exposure that loses 
neither highlights nor shadows. Shown next are the 
automatic conversion, and then a version that aims 
for extreme saturation to emphasize the bands of 
color.These are two of many possible translations. 




Syntax, as normally defined, is the study of 
the rules governing the way words are put 
together to form sentences. In photography 
we need something similar, particularly in the 
digital era, to account for the changes in the 
general visual character of photographs. If we 
compare a late nineteenth- century landscape 
from a wet plate, a Tri-X 35mm black and white, 
a 35mm Kodachrome, and a modern digital 
night scene shot on Raw and using HDRI (high 
dynamic range imaging), there are some obvious 
differences in how the images look, and in how 
they were and are perceived by audiences. 

To take the first example, the dead- white sky 
of early photography was due to the inefficient 
response of emulsions, which were blue- sensitive. 
When the exposure was good for the ground, in 
the print a clear sky appeared white and most 
clouds were invisible. While some photographers 
responded with artifice, using another negative 

to print in another sky, those who remained true 
to the medium learned to compose around the 
limitation. Timothy O'Sullivan, for example, 
treated the white sky as a shape, exploiting the 
figure-ground relationship. This approach, in 
turn, came to be accepted by its audience as 
the natural way that a photograph should look. 
Syntax in linguistics explains what makes an 
admissible sentence. Syntax in photography 
explains how a photograph ought to look. 

The invention of 35 mm created a different 
syntax for photography, with the camera used 
off the tripod, handheld. The smaller film frame 
revealed the grain in an enlargement onto a 
print, so photographers learned to live with the 
texture. Kodak's Tri-X in particular had a tight, 
distinct grain structure, and this was enjoyed by 
some photographers, and eventually by viewers. 
The invention of Kodachrome, with its rich, 
deeply saturated colors (the more so when under- 


A good example of the new style of High Dynamic 
Range Imaging, in which the entire dynamic range 
of this New York subway scene is captured with 
full color saturation, from the darkest shadows to 
the individual bare lamps. No additional lighting 
was used (for comparison a low dynamic range 
single frame is shown below). This kind of image 
was inconceivable until the 21st century, but its full 
presentation of all the information in a scene may 
take some getting used to. 




Shot on black-and-white film, 
deliberately without added 
lighting, this morning view of 
St. John's Chapel in the Tower of 
London attempts to capture the 
flood of light as the sun streams 
down on the altar, and to do 
this makes full use of the flare 
characteristic of well-exposed 
high-contrast images. 


Typical of Kodachrome images 
exposed for the highlights — in 
this case the sun rising behind 
the Jefferson Memorial 
in Washington DC — this 
photograph treats its subject 
as a silhouette, relying on 
viewpoint and a recognizable 
profile outline. The multi-spiked 
flare star around the sun is 
typical from a lens at small 
aperture with underexposure. 

exposed), led to another way of working. Even 
in the handful of labs that could process it, there 
was almost no latitude for correcting mistakes 
by altering the processing. The transparency 
went straight to the repro house, so Kodachrome 
photographers learned to put all their effort into 
getting the exposure and framing right — more 
than at any time previously. Remember that 
with black and white, photographers shot in 
the knowledge of what they, or a skilled printer, 
could later achieve. W. Eugene Smith's darkroom 
marathons became legend, but they were also the 
epitome of printing as a second, essential stage in 
the process. This disappeared with Kodachrome 
for reproduction in magazines and books. 
This film, which dominated professional color 
photography during the 1960s and 1970s, also 
created the practice of deliberate underexposure. 
Photographers exposed to hold the highlights, 
which when overexposed on Kodachrome looked 

terrible, in the knowledge that a repro house 
could "open up" the shadows. 

Color Formalism, born in 1970s America, 
and the later love affair that many fashion 
and advertising photographers have had with 
color negative film processed and printed 
idiosyncratically, were in part a reaction to the 
Kodachrome generation, as we saw in Chapter 
5, but the greatest change of all in the rules of 
what makes an acceptable photographic image 
are happening right now. Post-production is 
possibly the major change wrought by digital 
photography, certainly from the point of view 
of process. Particularly interesting is how post- 
production can change the syntax of photography 
by eliminating or altering the graphic elements 
special to cameras, lenses, and film. 

Digital possibilities include the ability to 
make everything technically "correct." Consider 
those two components of photographic syntax 

unquestioned until now — flare and silhouettes. 
Flare is actually inefficient, an artifact in digital 
terminology, but has that made it wrong? Of 
course not. Photographers have had decades to 
make it work and be attractive and evocative. 
Audiences have had the same time to learn it and 
enjoy it. Flare brings the impression of flooding 
light and the view out. The same with silhouettes, 
which I would argue are an invention of 
photography (I'm excluding cameos). With digital 
photography, neither flare nor silhouettes are 
inevitable. HDRI can remove them. Is this good? 
Is it acceptable or desirable? These are questions 
still to be answered, not only by photographers 
but by the audience, too. There is now the 
possibility of making photographs that are closer 
to the way we see, but whether or not this is 
something that photography should aim for is 
open for discussion. As always with photography, 
nothing is agreed, and all is still in flux. 




3:2 frame format 10, 12, 13 
4:3 frame format 12, 14 

abstraction 11,138-9 

accent, color 120, 121 

Adams, Ansel 58, 139, 147, 151, 152, 172 

aerial perspective 56, 57 

Agha,M. F.147 

alignment, with frame 10 

ambiguity, content 140-3 

anticipation 99,166-7 


of objects 70-1 

of photographs 180 
art photography 154 
aspect ratio 12 
Atget, Eugene 136 


background 46-7 

concept of 40-1 

dynamic 42 

symmetry 41-2 
Barthes, Roland 62,132 
beauty, concept of 147 
"beholder's share" 38, 140 
black and white 126-7 
blue, color 115, 116 
Breton, Andre 147 

color 114-15, 120 

key 110, 112-13 


calligraphy 46 

Capa, Robert 184 

captions 142-3, 182 

Cartier-Bresson, Henri 96, 98, 147, 151, 152, 154, 

156,164, 166,168,180 
case study, hunting for photographs 160-1 
challenging composition 130-3 
chiaroscuro no 

Cinerama 18 
circles 88-9 
Clarke, Graham 152, 154 
clear intent 140-3 

Law of 38,39 

triangular 85 

accent 120,121 

blue 115, 116 

brightness 114-15, 120 

complementary 115, 120, 130 

composition with 114-17 

exposure and 106,107 

green 115,117 

hue 114-15 

interference colors 125 

metallic 125 

muted 122-5 

orange 115, 117 

perspective 56 

primaries 114-15 

proportions 121 

red 115,116 

relationships 118-21 

saturation 114-15 

secondaries 115 

temperature 119 

violet 115,117 

yellow 115, 116 
color circle 115, 120 
Color Formalism 122,147,152,187 
Common Fate, Law of 39 
complementary colors 115, 120, 130 
complexity 138-9 

clear or ambiguous 140-3 

construction of 174-7 

conventional or challenging 130-3 

creating order 152-5 

delay 144-5 

documentary or expressive 136-7 

intent 129 

juxtaposition 178-9 

reactive or planned 134-5, 1 5 1 

"constancy scaling" 52 
construction, of composition 174-7 
Constructivism 147,148 

ambiguity 142-3 

weak and strong 62-3 
contrast 34-7 

chiaroscuro 110 

flat /contra sty 36 

liquid/solid 37 

many /one 34 

soft/hard 35 

solid/liquid 38 

tonal 110-13 
conventional composition 130-3 

perspective 52-5 

triangles 84 
cropping 20-1 
Cubism 138 
curves 80-1 

decisive moment 98-9 
delay, ambiguity 144-5 

diagonals 76-8 

perspective and 52-7 
De Sausmarez, Maurice 43 

balance 40-3 

basics of 32-3 

content and 62-3 

contrast 34-7 

dynamic tension 44-5 

figure and ground 46-7 

Gestalt theory 38-9 

pattern 50-1 

perspective 52-7 

rhythm 48-9 

texture 50-1 

visual weight 58-9 
diagonal lines 

converging 92 

dynamics 76 



movement and 78 

perspective and 76-9 

wide-angle lens 103 

zig-zags 77 
diagonal tension 11 
diCorcia, Philip-Lorca 134 
digital cameras, viewfinder or LCD 22 
digital photography 

color effects 114, 118 

post-production 184-5 

syntax 186-7 
diminishing perspective 54, 56 
documentary photography 136-7 
Doisneau, Robert 134, 156, 166 
Dyer, Geoff 129 

balance 42 

diagonals 76 

of frame 10-11 

tension 44-5 

Eauclaire, Sally 152 

eccentricity 42 

Eggleston, William 122,152 

ellipses 88 

Emergence, principle of 38, 39 

ethical issues, image manipulation 184 

Evans, Walker 136,137,151 

exploration 168-71 

exposure 106-7 

expressive photography 136-7 

extended images 18-19 

eye-lines 82-3 

eyes, scan paths 60-1 

faces, visual weight 58,82 
fashion, photographic styles 146-9 
Fibonacci series 26-7 
figure/ground relationship 46 
figures, triangular structure 86 
fish-eye lens 88, 104 
flare 106, 107, 187 
flash, rear-curtain style 149 

focal length 

lenses 100 

perspective and 54,55 
focus, use of 94-5 
foreshortening 75 

3:2 format 10, 12, 13 

4:3 format 12, 14 

alignment within 10 

cropping 20-1 

divisions 26-7 

dynamics of 10-11 

empty 10 

extending 18-19 

filling the frame 22-3 

horizon position 28-9 

horizontal 12-15 

internal frame 30-1 

placement within 24-5 

rectangles and 88 

shape of 12-17 

square 16-17 

vertical 15 
Frank, Robert 130, 156, 164 
Friedlander, Lee 152 
Fuji, Velvia film 122 


Galassi, Peter 147 

galleries, arrangement of photographs 180, 182 

gaze 60-1, 82-3 

geometry, dividing the frame 26 

Gestalt theory 38-9 

Giacomelli, Mario 151 

Glaser, Milton 129 

Goethe, J. W. von 120 

Golden Section 26,130 

Gombrich, Ernst 38, 140, 142 

Good Continuation, Law of 39, 48, 74, 82 

graphic elements 65 

circles 88-9 

curves 80-1 

diagonal lines 76-9 

exposure 106-7 

eye-lines 82-3 

focus 94-5 

horizontal lines 72-3 

moment 98-9 

motion blur 96-7 

optics 100-5 

rectangles 88-9 

several points 70-1 

single point 66-9 

triangles 84-7 

vectors 90-3 

vertical lines 74-5 
gravity, balance and 43 
green, color 115, 117 
Gregory, R.Li 56 


Haas, Ernst 109,122 

balance and 41 

color and 118-20 
Helmholtz, Hermann von 156 
Herrigel, Eugem64 

high dynamic range imaging (HDRI) 186-7 
horizon 28-9 
horizontal frame 12-15 

verticals in 75 
horizontal lines 72-3 
hue, color 114-15 
human vision 12 
hunting, for a photograph 156-61 



"importance weightings" 58 


clear or ambiguous 140-3 

composition 129 

conventional or challenging 130-3 

documentary or expressive 136-7 

reactive or planned 134-5 

simple or complex 138-9 

style 146-9 

focus of 58-9 

viewing order 60-1 



interna I frames 30-1 
intuition 151 

Invariance, principle of 39 
Itten, Johannes 34,41 


juxtaposition 178-9 



Kanisza triangle 38 


key, tonal 110-13 

kinetics 90-3 

Klee, Paul 138 

Kodachrome 106, 107, 122, 186-7 

Lange, Dorothea 180 

choice of 100-5 

fish-eye lens 88, 104 

telephoto lens 100-4, 105 

tilt lens 52-3, 104 

varying viewpoints 168-71 

wide-angle lens 100-1, 102, 103, 105, 168 
lighting, natural 134,135 
linear perspective 52-4 

curves 80-1 

diagonal 76-9 

eye-lines 82-3 

horizontal 72-3 

vertical 74-5 
Linked Ring 147 

eye-lines 82-3 

scan paths 60-1 


magazines, picture stories 180-2 

manipulation, post-production 184-5 

Man Ray 147 

many, pattern of 50-1 

Metzker, Ray 134, 164 

Meye ro wit z, Joel 151,156 
Minimalism 138,147,149 
Modernism 147 
moment, decisive 98-9 
motion blur 96-7 

curves 80 

diagonal lines 78 

moment and 98-9 

motion blur 96-7 

vectors 90-3 
Multistability, principle of 39 
music, color and 118 


Neue Sachlichkeit (New Objectivity) 147 
Newman, Arnold 98 

optics, lenses 100-5 
optimization 184 
orange, color 115, 117 
order, search for 152-5 
originality 130-3 
0'Sullivan,Timothy 186 

panoramas 13, 18-19 
pattern 50-1 

Gestalt theory 38-9 

psychology of 156,157 

aerial 56,57 

color 56 

depth and 52-7 

diagonal lines 76-9 

diminishing 54, 56 

linear 52-4 

sharpness 57 

tonal 56 

wide-angle lens 100,102 
"phi-phenomenon" 38 

intent 129 

intuition 151 

repertoire 162-3 

style 146-9 
photographs, together 180-3 

hunting for a photograph 156 

obvious images 140 

wide-angle lens 100 

see also street photography 
Photo-Secession 147 
Photoshop 184 
Picasso, Pablo 138 
picture stories 180-2 
Piles, Roger de 142 

photographs together 180-3 

within the frame 24-5, 66-9, 176 
planned composition 134-5,151 

several 70-1 

single 66-9 
post-modern new realism 147 
post-production, digital photography 

preparation 164 
primary colors 114-15 
process, of photography 151 
proportions, color 121 
Proximity, Law of 38 

Raw format 184 

reactive photography 134-5, 151, 

rectangles 88-9 
red, color 115, 116 
Reification, principle of 39 
repertoire 162-3 
repetition, rhythm 48-9 
reportage 156, 166 
return visits 172-3 
rhythm 48-9 
Rodger, George 62 
Rowell, Galen 41-2, 152 




saccades 60 

Sander, August 136 


saturation, color 114-15 

"scale constancy" 52 


secondary colors 115 

Segregation, Law of 39 

sequences, of photographs 182 

Seurat, Georges 41 


circles and rectangles 88-9 

triangles 84-7 

focus 94-5 

perspective 57 
Shore, Stephen 174 
silhouette 106, 187 
Similarity, Law of 39 

composition 138-9 

Law of 39 
Smith, W. Eugene 187 
"snapshot aesthetic" 152 
Sommer, Frederick 70 
spirals 90-1 
square frame 16-17 
still-life 174-6 
stitching 18-19 
Straight photography 147 
Strand, Paul 139 
street photography 134, 156, 165, 166 

see also photojournalism 
style, photographer's intent 129,146-9 
subject, "hiding" of 144-5 
surprise, in composition 132, 144-5 
surrealism 147 
Suzuki, Daisetz 164 

balance 41-2 

bilateral 43 

square frame 16-17 
syntax 186-7 
Szarkowskijohn 130,151 

telephoto lens 100-4, 105 
temperature, color 119 

diagonal 11 

dynamic 44-5 
texture, pattern 50-1 
tilt lens 52-3,104 
time-lapse 184-5 
timing, decisive moment 98 
tonal perspective 56 
tone, contrasts 109, 110-13 
triangles 84-7 

inverted 86,87 


unconventional composition 130-3 


vectors 90-3 

Velvia film 122 

vertical frame 15 

vertical lines 74-5 

viewer, involvement of 38, 100, 105, 140-2 


exploring with 168 

as frame 10 
viewpoint, varying 168-71 
vignetting 106, 107 
violet, color 115, 117 
visual weight 58-9 


Weston, Edward 134, 147, 151, 152 
wide-angle lens 100-1, 102, 103, 105, 168 
Winogrand, Garry 130, 136-7, 152 
writing, visual weight 58, 59 


Yarbus,A. L60 
yellow, color 115, 116 


Zen 164 
zig-zag lines 77 
zoom lens 168 



I would like to thank my publisher, Alastair Campbell, 
an old friend, for his encouragement and many 
suggestions; my editor, Adam Juniper, for finding ways 
to make many of the ideas here work in published form; 
another old friend, Robert Adkinson, who many years 
ago commissioned my earlier book on this subject, 
The Image; and special thanks to Tom Campbell, 
whose suggestions initiated the writing of this book. 


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